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Why The Golden Rule Fails in Leadership

by Carolyn Kalafut on

Ah, the Golden Rule, most of us know it well. In fact, for many it is one of the first rules we learn: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” Although well intentioned, this rule falls flat when applied to leadership.

You’ve likely been led by both good and bad leaders, and, stepping into a leadership role, it’s easy to convince yourself that you will be better than what you’ve experienced! But when we assume that “being better” means “being more like what I wanted out of my leaders,” we may run into trouble. The problem lies with the assumption that others are like us, and therefore like to be treated the way we do. We start to lead in a way that we appreciate, only to find that others are not embracing the style the way we would have expected.

It is not so much leading the way you would like to be led that’s important, but focusing on what your followers need from you to reach their potential. The true Golden Rule in Leadership involves being flexible enough to recognize when taking a different approach is important. Even good leadership falls on to hard times if there’s no flexibility.

The Devil’s in the Details

Now, before jumping into ways to be more flexible, I should note that this stuff is nuanced. It is easy to point out bad leadership – when we see a boss berating their employee, it is likely this leadership style will be universally identified as ‘bad leadership’—but it is much more difficult to identify when leadership is just not the ‘right type’ of leadership. We need to consider each employee’s preferences and what works best for them – we need to get to know them. But this is only one layer. We also need to consider how we execute our leadership tactics and our own preferences and natural tendencies: the devil’s in the details!

Figuring Out What (and When) to Flex

In flexing your leadership style, it is first important to understand what your own preferences are, as this will likely be your leadership default and will be important to understanding how you work best (consider taking something like the DiSC Assessment to get a quick snapshot of your preferences).

Think about what drives and motivates you, and ask yourself: What leadership style keeps me engaged at work? Under what leadership style do I work best? What frustrates me?

After self-reflection, take time to think about the differences in your employees’ preferences. Differences to consider are:

Motivations: What motivates the individual? Are they achievement oriented – do they need a challenge? Are they more concerned with security? What keeps them feeling challenged, without being overloaded?

Recognition & Feedback: Do they appreciate public recognition or would they rather you send a thank you e-mail? Are they someone who needs frequent feedback?

Communication: What style works best for them – face to face or electronic? How often do they need to be communicated with?

In addition to preferences, consider experience, skill, and length in the role/organization. One of my colleagues took on a team with quite a bit of experience, and so he began to manage in his typical laid-back style, “I don’t like to micromanage, I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m hovering.” And while some may have appreciated this, a newer individual on the team was struggling.

“When I heard he was struggling, I felt so bad. This was really on me – he was trying to do a good job and didn’t want to come to me because he didn’t want to look incapable. I needed to adapt my approach based on experience and be more hands-on, even though I’m not typically this way.”

After considering your employees’ differences, reach out to your team and ask their preferences. Remember, just like in the example above, your employees may not readily come to you if they are struggling with your leadership style. Make sure you go out of your way to solicit feedback and test your intuition on the needs of each employee.

Aim to be as specific as possible when doing this. Asking “how do you like to be managed?” may be too broad; moreover, some may not know what they prefer. Ask detailed questions about their preferences, ask them how they have reacted to or how they feel about particular management practices you have implemented. For example, if you have weekly check-ins you might ask: Do you like these? Are they frequent enough? Too frequent? Do we go over the information you want to be covering?

Staying Flexible

The key to continually being able to flex your style appropriately for your employees is continued (you guessed it) flexibility and some structure. Consider implementing the following:

Keep yourself accountable: Make a list of the changes you want to make in regards to your style, and style preferences for your people. Review this and consider ways you can actively change your approach to garner the best out of your people.

Continually re-assess: As the appropriate approach will not only be a function of the individual’s innate preferences, but also the individual’s developmental stage, consider how this is changing over time. Someone who is new on the job will likely need more coaching and one-on-one time, but this same individual may need much less guidance as they become more familiar with the work. Get feedback on how you are coming across, stay open to this feedback, and strive to change perceptions where you can.

Remember it is still YOUR Leadership Style

Lastly, don’t lose yourself! Keep in mind that adjusting your style is less about changing drastically from one person to the next, and more about taking the base leadership style that is most natural to you and flexing where it makes sense.

A colleague of mine told me a story about his struggles early in his leadership career. As a newly appointed leader, he quickly implemented an open-door policy (a leadership policy his team was receptive to), and encouraged his team to stop in and talk when they needed help. While he was trying to encourage an open environment and establish himself as an accessible leader, it was still not landing with the team. It was not until the team was in a feedback meeting that he realized why: “I’ll never forget it. An employee of mine brought up the open-door policy and she said, ‘A lot of times when I come in and sit down, you give this look like I’m the last person you want to see.’ And I immediately knew it was true.”

If a flexed tactic is not working for you, find ways to adjust and compromise. If you are a person who needs uninterrupted work-time, consider alternatives to the open door policy, such as office hours, one-on-one meetings, or morning huddles.

Although it’s very tempting to want to be the best manager for everyone, style differences will always be present. And if a style is not working for you, it won’t work for your team.

We’ll break it to you now: you will not be everyone’s best boss. And that’s okay. If everyone likes you, nobody loves you. Do not lose the forest for the trees – in essence, do not become so wrapped up in adjusting to the individual needs of each direct report that you lose your overall direction and style as a leader.

Ultimately, when you are managing, remember you are not managing a team of your own clones. It’s important to adjust your style, while still playing to your strengths. Seek out ways to assess your style and continue to get feedback on what you are doing well and what can be changed; consider a development assessment or 360° review. Finding the right flex of style is a tough task to be sure, but one that will strengthen the relationships worth having; and even little adjustments are likely to yield large results.

We want to hear from you: How have you had to flex your leadership style? What approach did you take? Did it work? What is your “golden rule” of leadership?

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