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When the golden rule doesn’t work

Posted by Meg Bear on January 28, 2010

I’ve come to realize that I have been unintentionally misled as far as the golden rule is concerned.

It’s not that the golden rule is a bad idea, in general treating others how you want to be treated is better than intentionally treating them how you don’t.


it still can set you up for failure.  In a similar way that letting a four year old pick out a birthday gift for a twelve year old might.  While the twelve year old might be polite about it, I’m fairly certain that the glitter, sparkle princess pony is not as cool as the four year old believes it to be.

The golden rule is just another manifestation of our general tendency toward ethnocentrism, viewing the world with ourselves in the center.

In fact, we should be striving for Dan McCarthy’s Platinum rule and thinking how others want to be treated.

As usual, I have some great examples from personal experience, about what might not work so well.

Some things I’ve come to learn are:

  • not everyone loves an lively open brainstorming session on how to fix their most important problems
  • some people find debate uncomfortable
  • some people do not find lots of hard questions a sign of interest in their topic, instead they might find those questions stressful
  • publicly sharing your goals, flaws and challenges could be considered unusual

The tricky bit of all this is that following the platinum rule requires knowing more about the “others” in your life.  It’s a lot harder, but it’s also a lot more effective.  For it to work best, you need people who are willing to let you know how they want to be treated.

One obvious way to find out is to ask. Taking the time to get to know others and what works for them will increase your effectiveness as a leader.

On the flip-side, letting others know how you want to be treated will make things better for you.   So, the next time you find someone treating you differently than your ideal, consider opening this dialogue.  It’s possible that they are just following the golden rule, and have no idea they are getting it wrong.

And for all those people who have endured years of  my tough questions… sorry about that!

10 Responses to “When the golden rule doesn’t work”

  1. Tim Hall said


    Great post, and very true.



  2. Aw, have you been interrogating people a bit much? 😉 It’s hard for me to relate because I actually enjoy a nice brisk round of interrogation.

  3. Ranu Gupta said

    Very interesting. Kind of reminds me of Situational Leadership, aka, Adapting your style to the receiver and the context. Ranu

  4. My favorite example of the Golden Rule gone awry is when Homer buys Marge a bowling ball for her birthday… because HE likes bowling.

  5. Meg- what a good thing to point out. I fall into the trap of the golden rule with my children but after reading your post, I know I’ll begin teaching the platinum rule instead.

  6. DanDare said

    Good thoughts Meg. Now there is just one more fly in the ointment. Sometimes how people want to be treated is not how they should be treated. Consider someone who is overweight and going to die if they don’t trim down. They may want every chocolate cake going to be given to them yet still magically lose weight. Are you going to give them your chocolate cake?

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