Want to improve your management style? Screw the Golden Rule

Here’s why “Treat others the way you want to be treated” doesn’t work as an effective leadership strategy.


“Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.”

This is The Golden Rule we all learned growing up. As a manager or CEO in a company, you’d think it would make sense to follow it too. Managers should treat their employees the way they’d like to be treated, right?

Not quite.

In a recent interview I did with David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH), the Creator of the popular web framework Ruby on Rails and Chief Technology Officer at Basecamp, he shared this insight: You shouldn’t treat other people the way you want to be treated because the other person isn’t you.

The other person has different preferences (beliefs, ideas, and experiences) and is going to react to a situation differently than you. You might think something is reasonable or fair, but that’s you thinking that, not the other person. You cannot assume that the way she would like to be treated is the same as the way you’d like to be treated.

David admits to being guilty of this as much as anyone, saying that when he does this, “I’m trying to be empathetic to my own mirror image, which is not actually a very good definition of empathy.”

In fact, it’s self-centered in many ways to assume that if you treat others the way you’d like to be treated, other people will like it too.

One of the most memorable examples for me of this is when I talked with another CEO a few months ago. He told me how his company had implemented an unlimited vacation policy recently. In theory, he thought it was going to work great. It’s what he had always wanted when he’d worked at other companies himself — unlimited vacation, what could be better?

But then something interesting at his company happened: No one in his company took vacation. Maybe a day or two off here and there, but people took less vacation with the unlimited vacation policy than they had in years before.

I was a little shocked when he first told me this. What went wrong? The CEO learned is that none of the employees wanted to be seen as “the slacker” or “letting the team down.” Everyone else was afraid of taking vacation, so no one went on one.

After realizing this, the CEO replaced the unlimited vacation policy with a requirement that people take at least two weeks off of paid vacation during a year. It’s not what he would have necessarily wanted, but that’s not the point. If you’re a great manager or leader, you shouldn’t be operating from the point-of-view of what you want, you should be operating from the point-of-view of what others want.

Instead of practicing The Golden Rule and assuming other people are just like you, what should you do?

The answer is deceptively simple. Ask.

Ask your employees what type of vacation policy they’d prefer or what work environment they’d like to be in. Here are some examples of things you can specifically ask:

  • How do you prefer I give you feedback? In-person or in writing?
  • When you are most productive in a day? During the morning or the afternoon? Or even at night?
  • How much social interaction is important to you? Should we plan more team-bonding outings or have more regular company lunches?
  • How often would you like to get together for one-on-ones? Once a week, once a month or once a quarter?
  • How would you like to recognized for your work? Do prefer verbal praise in front of others, or more privately? Are small gifts or tokens of appreciation a good way to signify gratitude?
  • How much direction or context do you like before kicking off a project? Do you need space to gather your thoughts initially, or do you like having a lot of suggestions from me upfront?

Don’t just assume their answers are the same as yours. Ask, listen, and then act accordingly. The Golden Rule need not apply.






P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @cjlew23.)

Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work.

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