When the golden rule doesn’t work

I’ve come to realize that I have been unintentionally misled as far as the golden rule is concerned.

It’s not that the golden rule is a bad idea, in general treating others how you want to be treated is better than intentionally treating them how you don’t.


it still can set you up for failure.  In a similar way that letting a four year old pick out a birthday gift for a twelve year old might.  While the twelve year old might be polite about it, I’m fairly certain that the glitter, sparkle princess pony is not as cool as the four year old believes it to be.

The golden rule is just another manifestation of our general tendency toward ethnocentrism, viewing the world with ourselves in the center.

In fact, we should be striving for Dan McCarthy’s Platinum rule and thinking how others want to be treated.

As usual, I have some great examples from personal experience, about what might not work so well.

Some things I’ve come to learn are:

  • not everyone loves an lively open brainstorming session on how to fix their most important problems
  • some people find debate uncomfortable
  • some people do not find lots of hard questions a sign of interest in their topic, instead they might find those questions stressful
  • publicly sharing your goals, flaws and challenges could be considered unusual

The tricky bit of all this is that following the platinum rule requires knowing more about the “others” in your life.  It’s a lot harder, but it’s also a lot more effective.  For it to work best, you need people who are willing to let you know how they want to be treated.

One obvious way to find out is to ask. Taking the time to get to know others and what works for them will increase your effectiveness as a leader.

On the flip-side, letting others know how you want to be treated will make things better for you.   So, the next time you find someone treating you differently than your ideal, consider opening this dialogue.  It’s possible that they are just following the golden rule, and have no idea they are getting it wrong.

And for all those people who have endured years of  my tough questions… sorry about that!

Do you share your opinions freely?

I had the opportunity to attend a leadership training this week.  A lot of concepts were discussed, but one that got me thinking was about how important it is for a leader to create healthy debate in their organization.

Not that you want to always be disagreeing or even looking to drive consensus, but that you are making sure that all ideas are on the table and available to you to make the best decisions.

I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.

– Dudley Malone

This got me thinking about how bringing forward ideas is not just about the leader, it is about all the participants being willing to share their ideas and opinions freely.  I think we can all think of ways this can be stifled by a leader, but even the most open and engaging leader cannot force participation.  An idea is something a participant offers.

Being a member of a great team is something we all desire, but there is a big responsibility on each of us to make that happen.  For teams to be high functioning trust has to exist, and in the end it comes down to each of us to give our trust and our thoughts freely to the team, often before that trust is earned.

My question today is:

Do you share your ideas and opinions on the important issues or do you sit back and wait for the opportunity to say “I knew they would get it wrong”?  How does that impact the outcome for your team?

The upside of failure

Let me be clear, I do not love failing.  I also do not love looking silly or dumb, but I do have some experience with both, and frankly to progress far, you are probably going to have to face the risk you might fail and decide what that means to you.

I know that the fear of failure and the fear of looking dumb holds too many of us back.

I believe this often happens as a result of incorrectly weighing the risk/benefit and also because we do not have a strategy.  I have lots of stories I could share about looking dumb and failing, but the one I was reminiscing about today was my experiences with high school sports.

This story begins my freshman year of high school.   Not only was I a freshman, I had just turned 13, having just skipped eighth grade.  I was also new, having recently moved to a town that was so small, we quite literally, did not have Family Feud.  To say I was awkward and bookish, would be the polite description of my thirteen year old self.

In this small town, sport-abilities were one of the key indicators of cool, as school sports were one of the only things to do (the other notable accomplishment for girls tended to be teen pregnancy).  So, while I loved staying home reading books, I did not want to be a complete social outcast, and so I knew I had to take up sports.

I had a [very] few things going for me :

  • I was female in a town that didn’t see many new girls, so I was instantly attractive
  • The try out process for joining sports teams involved showing up for practice, as filling a roster was such a risk everyone was welcome
  • I was a freshman, so expectations were generally low, and I had one year to get my act together with some limited immunity
  • I was willing to work really hard

of course, I was terrible.

This is not an attempt at being humble, this is literal fact.  I was so bad at basketball, that in my sophomore year, my step-father quite strongly stated he would not let me play, as he was sick of being embarrassed attending the games.

Failing and surviving at sports taught me real world skills that I still use regularly today.

Here are some things I think are important when challenging ourselves to learn new things to combat that fear of failure

  • Make it safe but still do it.  Set yourself up for some success.  By using my freshman year as my opportunity I had very little to lose.  I was new, I didn’t have friends or a known reputation.  It is so important to find a safe place to practice new skills.  These safe environments are not things that typically get handed to us, we need to make them happen and be sure to seize the opportunity when they do.
  • Get people who support you.  My family was supportive and encouraging, well until they had to pull the plug on the basketball thing…
  • Have people who will tell you when it just isn’t working.  At some point you need to know if you might just be going too far afield of your capabilities.  Keep those people who will tell you that close.  They are the people you need in your life.
  • Give yourself permission to look bad.  This one is the hardest I think.  You have to come to terms with the fact that you might look bad, you might also look brilliant.  It might be a steady progression from bad to brilliant, or you might mostly look bad and occasionally look brilliant.  If it is a fear of looking bad that is holding you back what do you think the consequence of that will be?  Will you think less or yourself? Why is it so important to never look bad?

Having survived my year of sport suffering, I have since learned that my athletic abilities are actually quite average.  Against those who have never suffered such a freshman year and self-selected away from sports, I look coordinated, next to natural athletes I look like a hack, but I have learned to love sports (especially those without competition).

I have also learned that I can successfully accomplish things that are outside of my comfort zone, if I want it badly enough.  I now know that, while I might fail and I might look bad, I also might find a new skill, gain a new hobby and obtain a new professional opportunity as a result of being willing to risk failure.

You see, I might not always be skilled, but I know I can be brave and I will work hard and those two things give me a bigger advantage than being good at basketball could have given me.

And for the post script of my story, starting my sophomore year, I got a chance to be statistician for the boys varsity basketball team instead of playing on the girls JV team.  This was a double win for me, I took a typing class instead of doing basketball practice  (a skill that improves my life every day), I got to attend all the games [traveling with the guys not the girls team], and I actually had natural abilities with a pencil.

I wish you all the confidence to risk failure.  Remember it is not the absence of fear that makes someone brave, it is facing that fear that makes us brave.


Update 1/7/2009 —  Art Petty has an excellent article on leadership and fear here that is well worth the read if you are interested in this topic.

Giving Back in 2010

This year I found myself struggling to define my goals.  This is very unusual for me.  Typically the process of writing goals is cathartic as it gets them out of my head and safely on paper.   A goal setting “writers block” was very puzzling and frankly a bit troubling.  As a result I’ve been working out what my goals for 2010 for about 6 weeks.

I have known for some time, I’m undergoing a bit of a personal transformation.  I’ve been looking at things I typically avoid and deciding if I am going to give myself permission to write them out of my guilt horizon or get a plan to address them.  I refuse to be a victim to the view that I can’t address something. I am going to decide that I will or I will not and become comfortable with each decision.  Guilt for what I am not working on, is not helpful to my journey.

As part of this self-discovery I have also decided that 2010 is a year I will focus on giving back.  While in the past I have defined my achievements in tangible products and deliverables, going forward I want to also be able to measure the impacts I have had on others at a more human level.

So, here are my items of focus for this year

  • I will give myself permission to take time for things that I have not before.  Spending time on things that make me feel good and bring forth my best self are not selfish, they are investments.  I will no longer feel guilty spending time and money on my appearance and my well being.  Both are important because they make me better.
  • I will continue to make time for relationships in my work.  If I have any professional regret in the past decade was putting too much emphasis on deliverables   and not enough emphasis on people and relationships.  I’m going to rework this balance.
  • I will make more time for mentoring and supporting others in their goals.  I am a great supporting cast member in the life story of others and yet I so rarely play any more than a cameo appearance.    This happens as often as not due to my own lack of confidence.  I am too inclined to downplay the role I have in helping others and I plan to stop doing that.  I am going to embrace the fact that I really care for people that I work with.  I love seeing them achieve and succeed.  That is unique and special and while atypical, it is my authentic self.
  • I will continue to share what I know and what I don’t. I have learned (mostly the hard way, that’s probably another blog) that my personal comfort with showing weakness and failing is not normal.  We are all so inclined to spend time hiding what we don’t know for fear that others will think less of us.  This works against us at many levels.  I believe that knowing what you don’t know might be more important than what you do.   I plan to continue to set a counter example that the trick to success is to get as much help as you can.  Knowing where you need help is the first step in that process.

There is so much for me to learn both personally and professionally.  There are many things that I need help to achieve, but there is also a lot that I have to give.  This year I will focus on the giving because I know that this is going to open more doors for me than any other strategy, and it is also the path that will help me be not only a better employee but a better person.

I wish you all a 2010 of growth, development and achievement.  What a great year this is going to be!