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MarshallGoldsmith blog - Golden Rule Fallacy

What is the Golden Rule Fallacy?

12 Jul 2019

A western principle called the “Golden Rule” states that you should treat others the way you would like to be treated. In the context of friendship, the Golden Rule serves us well to understand fairness and forge healthy relationships. But what happens when the Golden Rule is applied in the context of leadership? Surprisingly, there are situations when treating others in the same manner as expected may not be as well received.

Imagine a successful CEO who actively participates during brainstorming meetings and enjoys open debates. During a meeting, one of his team members expresses an interesting, albeit unpopular, idea. The CEO can’t help but leap right into the conversation to passionately share another perspective. While debating the idea, the team member begins to feel discouraged and maybe even embarrassed. This wasn’t the CEO’s intention. However, unfortunately, the team member will likely play it safe in the future and not share ideas in concern for how the CEO may respond.

 

Golden Rule Fallacy

Executives tend to assume that their employees process and think as they do, that their behaviors are shared by and acceptable to everyone involved… when that isn’t always the case. We call this the “Golden Rule Fallacy.” The CEO in our example, like many other leaders, could be unintentionally alienating his team members and hurting his results. Here are some examples of ineffective behaviors that could have had a negative impact on the meeting:

  • Making destructive comments,
  • Starting with NO, BUT, HOWEVER,
  • Negativity, or “Let me explain why that won’t work,”
  • Not listening,
  • and the list continues…

 

Overcoming the Challenge

As an executive coach, you can help leaders overcome this challenge by drawing attention to these ineffective behaviors.

The first step is to help leaders understand that managing others more effectively requires being aware that they’re not managing themselves. Rather, they’re dealing with individuals from a spectrum of various skills and personality types.

You can facilitate the leader’s self-reflection on how they manage their staff by having them ask themselves questions like:

  • Do I treat my staff as they wish to be treated, or do I treat them as I expect to be treated?
  • Am I leveraging the unique strengths of each team member?
  • What are the spoken and unspoken expectations I am setting?

Great leaders are able to draw out the best of their teams by recognizing that people perceive actions and behaviors in different ways. When executives are able to adapt their leadership style to support the needs of their teams, they enhance performance as a whole by fostering a culture of inclusiveness, innovation, and co-ownership.

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