Gold thump down
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How the Golden Rule Can Make a Situation Worse

Jan 25, 2017

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “What’s the key to great leadership?” is written by Connie Stack, chief marketing officer at Digital Guardian.

Growing up in a family of nine, arguments between siblings flared up on a daily basis. It was common to hear my mom say, “Treat others as you’d like to be treated,” to deescalate the situation.

The Golden Rule eventually carried over into my professional life. As my responsibilities grew and my leadership style took shape, I was always proud to point to that rule as one of the keys to my success.

But then I found myself in a situation with an employee around 15 years ago that caused me to reevaluate the Golden Rule in business.

I was working at a venture-funded startup at the time, and an employee made a major mistake on a project that had CEO and board-level exposure. When I had to address the screw-up with the employee, I applied the Golden Rule, and spoke to him the way I like to be spoken to. I was respectful, but firm. I cut to the chase and proposed immediate actions that would avoid the situation from happening again in the future. The employee, a bright young man with about three years of work experience, burst into tears in my office.

I love candor, and direct, real-time feedback. Since that’s how I like to be treated, up until that point that’s how I treated others. Unfortunately, that approach blew this poor kid’s mind.

He was still absorbing the fact that he made a critical error and that all the people he was constantly trying to impress, including me, knew about it. I learned in that instant that treating others the same way you want to be treated isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Leadership doesn’t always mean locking into your preferred gear, especially when a situation would benefit from some nuance. Many great business leaders have a singular unwavering vision and ‘my way or the highway’ approach to reaching that vision. This can be inspiring, but also make things difficult for your employees.

I like to think I recovered pretty well in the situation. I showed him more empathy than I would have ever expected had the roles been reversed. I softened my language and helped him understand that it was important for him to be accountable for his error. But I also said that it was not career-limiting, or worse, career-ending. I reminded him that we all screw up occasionally, but we will be measured by our response to the situation, not by the mere fact that the screw-up happened in the first place.

In that moment I learned that leaders must be flexible and intuitive enough to read every room, not just during a critical meeting with the executive leadership team, the board of directors, or a potential investor. Being flexible enough to recognize when to take an approach that might be foreign to your own instincts doesn’t mean selling out your management style. It means pausing and listening to your intuition in the moment, rather than just focusing on getting a situation over with and moving on to the next task.

My Golden Rule in leadership has subsequently evolved to a more nuanced view that also considers how others might want to be treated in a situation. I still value directness and no-nonsense interactions, but I’m equally focused on reading my audience first. It’s a subtle but important variation, and it has made all the difference in how I lead and the business results I’ve achieved.

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