The Modified Golden Rule

Fran S.

Fran S.

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This morning catching up on back reading, I read David Yamada’s post “What if we applied the Golden Rule at Work?” It brought me back to my earliest days of educating workers and coaching “bad actors” and my struggle with the assertion by many that if we just lived by the Golden Rule, everything would be fine. I am an immense admirer of Yamada’s work and embrace fully his thinking, but perhaps it is time to modify the rule.

I found several years ago that when educating about workplace behavior, the Golden Rule came up short. Too often, people would say “Well, I wouldn’t care if someone said/did that to me.” Very often, these were bullies or harassers who lacked empathy or sensitivity to recognize others’ perspectives. I even had one bad actors’ wife arrive at a coaching session with her spouse to explain that she found his behavior acceptable. As a matter of pedagogy and also for purposes of making culture change in organizations, I had to find a way to bring this to the next level.

My thinking led me to this: if we modify the rule slightly, changing it from “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” to “Treat others as THEY would have you treat them,” it increases the complexity of civil behavior substantially, but also reflects the challenges of the real world. Civil and respectful behavior compels a need to understand others and modify our conduct to accommodate THEIR world view. An example I provide is the profound aversion I feel when I hear well-intentioned people saying that this is a “Christian Nation.” As a child of holocaust survivors, it kicks off a ton of aversive feelings and ideas programmed into me at an early age. “But,” cry the learners….” how can we avoid stepping on every landmine?” Some would argue that my response is thin-skinned. Others would roll their eyes and moan about “political correctness,” but the fact is that if I tell you it offends me, you can show me that I’m worth a minor modification in your terminology, or that I’m not. One will improve our relationship. One will sour it. So, how to reckon with this? The answer is twofold:

1) In the world of the modified golden rule, it is my responsibility to provide you with feedback. To let you know that my world view is different from yours. I might say “I know that this seems like an innocuous term to you, but it offends me.” This means that I have to be willing to risk triggering a defensive reaction in you, demonstrate courage and give you the opportunity to do the right thing. It’s hard but necessary.

2) In the world of the modified golden rule, you now know how I’d like to be treated, and you have the opportunity to treat me as I would like to be, even if it is dissimilar from your view on the term. You need to accept that my view is different from yours. Not better, not right, not correct, but different, and that your reaction can build or damage our future interactions.

I’m a pragmatist. I know that speaking up is hard. It is hard to give someone negative feedback. We are largely programmed to “suck it up” when someone bugs us. If you don’t buy that, think to the last time you were on an airplane, and someone wanted to talk to you, but you did not want to talk to them. Did you tell them to leave you alone, or did you signal your discomfort non verbally, or at all? We calculate that it is better to tolerate the unwelcome behavior than to risk offending or upsetting the seatmate.

I assert that while we can afford to tolerate the temporary intrusion of a stranger in a temporary situation, that we must develop a different set of behaviors for our workplaces, where we go each and every day and must carve out a place where we can get our work done in the best possible way. To get to this place, we have to first feel safe to speak up, and secondly, we need to learn to take critical feedback on our utterances and actions that may make us defensive but to view them as key information about what it will take to build a relationship with the person in question. This can only happen when the leaders in the C-Suite demonstrate receptivity, emotional intelligence and the capacity to take criticism and candor (One of the best books on this subject is Michael Roberto’s “Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer”)

So, the modified golden rule means this: if every employee, from the top of the organization to the last hired, knows they can speak up if something offends them, and every employee, from top to last hired will do their best to listen, understand and accommodate the concern, you will have a workplace that not only is free from expensive and painful litigation, but you will become an employer of choice.


Fran S.

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