The Golden Rule says, “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.”

m_brianGuest post by Brian Fulghum.

In a recent discussion, some people said that the “Golden Rule” is wrong or at least misguided. As the argument goes, people like different things, like things differently, and disagree about everything. How can we expect that treating people as we want to be treated will lead to any sort of agreeable outcome?

If I’m a vegetarian and I’m offered meat to eat, it doesn’t make me happy simply knowing that the host really likes steak and would want to be offered steak. If you extend the Golden Rule into even more sensitive aspects of public life, and especially in the arena of cross-cultural relationships, you will easily recognize that the Golden Rule is simply wrong.

This perspective is both observant and legalistic and misses the point. It accurately observes that “one shoe doesn’t fit all feet.” People have different needs and tastes in all areas of life, from material world objects to relationship dynamics. If we want people to know that we respect them, then we will respect their likes and dislikes. Yes, it’s true that someone who uses a cookie-cutter set of behaviors in their treatment of others (based on their own likes) is truly going to end up stepping on someone’s toes. But to invalidate the Golden Rule on the basis of differences between people and cultures is to subject the rule to a legalistic and transactional interpretation – “It must apply strictly to every area of personal preference, or it doesn’t apply at all.”

m_golden rule muralBut the Golden rule isn’t to be applied legalistically or scientifically, as a quid pro quo contract or a formula for controlling others. It’s a principle for living, directed more appropriately at helping us being the kind of people who can enjoy the kind of relationships that we want.

Intent vs. Impact, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

We tend to judge ourselves on the basis of our good intentions and others on the basis of the impact of their actions.  We know our own good intentions and expect the impact of our actions to be good.  We see the impact of others and make assumptions about their intentions. If we don’t like the impact that the actions of others have on us, we assume that they intended us harm.

In my own relationships, I acknowledge that contrary to my best intentions, my actions sometimes have unintended impacts. When this happens, I want to be able to recover, to explain my intentions, undo harm, and make amends for any negative impact if I can. What I want for myself is to be given the benefit of the doubt, a chance to make amends, some grace to make it right. Other things that I want for myself include being treated fairly. I want to be listened to when I have a complaint. I want my friends to be loyal and trustworthy.

We judge ourselves on the basis of our good intentions. Click To Tweet

What does it say about me if I want people to give me grace when my well-intended actions have a negative impact but refuse to give the same benefit to others? Or if I generally want to be understood but habitually jump to judge others without understanding their intent? Or I want a fair deal for myself, but I’m quite willing to cheat others. I think it says that I live with a double-standard. The Golden Rule eliminates double standards.
These areas of values and relationship dynamics, these “higher-order” dynamics, are where practicing the Golden rule is good advice. If I want to be understood, I should try to understand others. If I want to be forgiven, I should generally forgive others. If I want to be respected, I should respect others. If I treat others in the way that I want to be treated in these ways, I foster the kinds of relationships I want, be that with colleagues, bosses, subordinates, family, neighbors, and complete strangers.

m_Do unto others 2

Transactional vs. Transformational Relationships

In leadership theory, Transactional Leadership breaks down leader-follower interactions into measurable transactions based on agreed rewards or penalties for related performance. It’s the “carrot and the stick” approach to leadership. Do well and you get promoted, rewarded, respected, etc.  Do badly and get penalized, demoted, or disrespected. How the follower feels about it is nearly irrelevant. If there was a traditional rule that best characterizes Transactional Leadership, it’s probably closer to the spirit of “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”

Transformational leadership is more concerned with the leader-follower relationship and how the leader behaves toward followers. A transformational leader motivates followers not with “carrots and sticks” but through inspiring and empowering them in ways relevant to their individual needs and abilities. Transformational leaders also exemplify what they expect from their followers. Because different followers respond differently, the transformational leader adjusts her approach with each follower. Drawing from leadership theory terminology, the Golden Rule is not transactional, which leads to the legalistic interpretations referred to earlier. It is transformational, changing the very nature of any relationship and uplifting the people involved.

A transformational leader motivates followers by inspiring and empowering them. Click To Tweet

BE unto others
The Golden Rule is not a guarantee of relationship utopia. It won’t guarantee  desired responses of other people. It doesn’t safeguard us from making mistakes or having unintended impact on others. It is not a formula. It’s a transformational principal that when followed consistently over time, it gives us our best chance at creating the kinds of communities we want to live in. It gives us a change to be the kind of people who will be at home in these communities we create.

By choosing to follow this principle, we create habits that forms our character. Click To Tweet

In my own years as a manager, I experienced that when I wanted my staff to listen to me, it helped when I was a good listener first.  When facing an angry employee, the sooner I showed that I was listening to them, to their satisfaction, the sooner they would listen to me in turn. If I wanted them to understand what I was saying in a discussion, it helped if I also asked questions and sought to understand them. I can’t expect others to care about what’s important to me if I have already shown that I don’t give a hoot about what’s important to them.

m_knitsThe Golden Rule can transform us in three levels. It makes us better people by alerting our conscience when we try to deceive ourselves with a double standard and keeps us honest and respectful in how we treat others. It has a positive influence on relationships because at least one side works hard to make it a good one. And it has the potential (again, no guarantees) to influence other people positively – people lower their defenses when they see that we have their best at heart.

“Being” is the operative word. Although the Golden Rule uses the “do” verb, it’s actually about how we behave with others. This is because what we do reveals what we are inside. We recognize a tree by its fruit. At heart, I believe it is about our own character and the kind of people that we are, and the kind of people that we are becoming. The good news is that we always have a choice. By choosing to follow this good principle, we create habits, which become strengths, which become part of our character – who we are. So go and “Be unto others as you would have them be unto you.”

Be unto others as you would have them be unto you. Click To Tweet

For Reflection:

  • In global and multicultural organizations that have a great diversity of cultural value systems and behaviors, it can be difficult to find values to agree on and create organizational unity. Is it necessary to find common values  to create unity?
  • Can the Golden Rule be overtly included in an organizational values system?
  • Does it help clarify the position of the Golden Rule in an organization’s ethos, if we look at it as a transformational principle that is compatible with Transformational Leadership?

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Rick Vander Kam

    Good treatment of the Golden Rule principle! Mr. Fulgram is spot on when referring to the Golden Rule as a transformational principle as contrasted with a transactional one. As such, treating others as you want to be treated is a foundational value operating in organizations wanting higher levels of performance and low turnover. Listening is a primary exemplar of respect and the sine-qua-non of communication dynamics. In turn, the communication of relevant information at the right time presages success. The Golden Rule is indeed golden.

  2. Bobbie K Gregory

    The Golden Rule was in my 1st Bible, but my newer one is less direct, and most people say the Golden Rule is to love your neighbor as yourself. Have they removed the actual Golden rule from newer Bibles? Do you know where I can find the original Golden rule–Do unto others?

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