The Problem With The Golden Rule

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Influence, Management

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Most of us adopt the golden rule as a measuring stick for appropriate behavior. Google’s informal corporate motto, “Don’t be evil” points to it. It’s a great place to start, but taken too strictly it can get you into trouble.

All of us have a natural bias to assume others communicate, collaborate, and process information the same way we do. We set expectations, interact with them, and judge them accordingly. That’s great when working with people wired like we are, but can lead to disaster when working with someone radically different.

New directors, free for the first time to choose their own teams, often surround themselves with near-clones. Such specialized teams typically have huge blind spots and are often less productive in the long run. Seasoned leaders know their own strengths and weaknesses. Confident enough to surround themselves with people who complement their deficiencies, they willingly turn subordinates loose to work their magic. However, even the most experienced have to overcome their tendency to manage everyone in the style they themselves would like. Most have to learn the hard way.

Recently, a senior team I worked with was driving innovative business processes for a multinational corporation. Their leader was a superb out-of-the-box thinker, ideally suited to lead his team into the wild blue yonder of solutions never tried before. He was a big-picture guy, happy to leave the nuts and bolts of making it happen to others. Being in uncharted territory, his plan of attack was loosely structured and changed often, suiting his natural inclination to stay flexible. His natural leadership style was to empower team members to navigate their own course also. He led by exception: if he didn’t hear from a team member he assumed all was well, and he didn’t often reach out to them unless there was an issue.

They, on the other hand, were mostly detail oriented, and his leadership style left them feeling rudderless. They were great problem-solvers, happy to take his big ideas from the drawing board to fruition, but needed much more structure: planned opportunities to ask questions, make suggestions, and harness the considerable expertise of their teammates -– and a clearly defined road map to follow. Scattered across four continents and multiple time zones, most had never met face-to-face. They had little personal connection, and their professional relationships revolved almost completely around a virtual weekly staff meeting and to-do list. Most had little idea where they stood with their team leader or one another. His intention was to empower them to go forth and conquer, but they felt they were working in a void.

The prescription was three-fold:

First, we brought them together for a strategic planning retreat. Baked into that were opportunities to socialize and build personal relationships, as well as to learn more about one-another’s backgrounds, expertise, and responsibilities. From this they identified key opportunities to collaborate, and budding personal friendships gave them greater motivation to play team. Opportunities to refine a shared vision and see how they fit into it created strategic context for that to-do list, making it easier to get everyone rowing in the same direction.

Second, we wanted to serve the team’s need for details as well as the leader’s preference for the bottom line. We created an online team dashboard and document library. Here they listed all of their ongoing projects with detailed spreadsheets and metrics. To serve their leader’s preferences, they highlighted each in a color, green for the ones on track, yellow for those with concerns, and red for ones with missed deadlines or serious roadblocks. The library shared collaborative documents as well as white papers on their own expertise.

Third, the leader began holding regular meetings with each team member, mentoring them toward agreed-upon professional goals and giving them regular feedback on their performance.

Whether you are a corporate executive or an entrepreneur, there are lessons here for you. To interface well with others, you need to know your strengths and blind spots too, and be prepared to flexibly adapt to others without sacrificing your own needs. Whether leading a team, working with collaborators, serving customers, or interacting with your family, you foster better relationships when you resist the temptation to treat others as you would like to be treated, and instead give them what they need.

If you want to continue to grow your ability to become a great leader, contact me to discuss how I can help you understand their unique talents and needs, and how to recognize when they may be different from your own.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.
Managing Partner
The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at


E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.The Problem With The Golden Rule