Time to tweak the 'golden rule'

Your grandma may have taught you the "golden rule," but there may be some nuances missing from that valuable lesson. Thinking globally, one author realizes that the famous saying works best when slightly tweaked.

By , Startempathy.org

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    A girl plays with a kite as she is silhouetted against golden sunset at a park in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, March 19.
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“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

This “golden rule” might sound like a great way to live, but in terms of a personal leadership mantra, it turns out that it might lead you astray.

When our parents or grandparents reminded us to treat others the way we would want to be treated, they were probably reminding us about things like not being mean, not speaking behind our friends’ backs, or holding the door for someone coming in behind us. But what this phrase overlooks is that in a lot of nuanced ways, OTHERS don’t necessarily want to be treated how WE want to be treated.

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I’m part of something called the Clore Social Leadership Programme, and as part of the process, we go through a range of leadership training, including personality and working styles tests. Ever since I started managing people, I have loved learning about different working styles, be that through the Myers-Briggs tests, or the Four Seasons personality test. Working through these things as a group always reminds me that the things I want and the way I would want to be treated are not necessarily the ways others want to be treated.

For example, when we first did the Myers-Briggs test for our whole team at PEPY, an organization I helped found in Cambodia, we realized that half of our team were Myers-Briggs “J”s (those who “judged” their time and planned ahead – in our team they were the ones who labeled things, planned ahead, and always seemed organized) and the other half were “P”s (those who “perceived” their time and needs as they went along, often figuring things out on the fly – in our team, they were the ones always adjusting their schedule on the fly, were comfortable with change, often packed a lot into their sometimes disorganized schedule, and were more likely to be procrastinators).

As we had two refrigerators in our office at the time, we thought we would do a little experiment. We labeled one the “J” fridge and the other the “P” fridge and had those who associated themselves with each of those types use their designated fridge. What we found was that everyone was happier: The "J"s all had their own shelves labeled with their names, their fridge was always clean and organized, and everyone kept track of their own food. The P fridge often got a little smelly, and few people really remembered whose food was whose anyway, but no one got upset if someone ate their grapes. Both groups were treated how they usually treated others, and by looking at how different the two fridges became, both groups realized that not everyone saw the world or treated others in the same way.

I’ve seen cultural differences also break down the “Do unto others” mantra. For example, when working in Asia, I slowly learned that being direct about a problem was a faux pas. It was not rare that another member of my team would tell me that “so and so” had a problem. At first, I was annoyed: I would think, “Why wouldn’t that person tell me directly if they wanted a vacation, or a raise, or if they had a problem they were worried about?” How I wanted to be treated was to be told directly, but it turns out my directness ran counter to the cultural norms of my Cambodian and Japanese co-workers, and after I worked in each place for a few years, I began to realize that the correct mantra would be:

“Do unto others as THEY would want to be treated.”

In order to do that, we need to find out how the others would want be treated, and even before that, we need to embrace the fact that our way of seeing the world isn’t their way of seeing the world. Through my work in development education and international travel, I think one of the best lessons we learn through our global education experiences is that our own sense of reality is constructed. Our rules of what is right and wrong are not the rules of what is right and wrong, and embracing that realization opens us up to being empathetic toward other ways of approaching life.

So, as we go out into the world and consider the responsibilities that come with our global citizenship, we can thank our grandmothers for the good intentions that fueled their teachings about the "golden rule,” but instead start treating others as “they” would want to be treated. If we all do that, then we’ll still each be treated how we want to be treated in the end anyway, and so will everyone else!

This article originally appeared on the Startempathy.org blog, published by the Start Empathy project from Ashoka.

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