Here are two key ways the Golden Rule falls short.
For many of us, the Golden Rule (“Treat others how you would like to be treated”) is the ethical standard we were taught to live by.
On the surface, the Golden Rule seems to offer good guidance about how to interact with others to foster good relationships, mutual happiness, and general harmony. I don’t want to be harmed, so I shouldn’t harm others. I want people to be thoughtful towards me, so I should be thoughtful towards them.
However, there are two key ways the Golden Rule falls short.
We commonly think that the Golden Rule motivates us to be helpful and kind. We would like others to be helpful and kind towards us, so that’s how we should be towards others.
However, it’s not enough for us to do “helpful or nice things” for others and then congratulate ourselves for being “awake” to the needs and wants of others.
When we treat others as we would like to be treated, we are only considering our own perspective. Our helpfulness towards others is based on what we would like if we were in that situation. While trying to be helpful is always a good thing and putting ourselves in “their shoes” can open our eyes to what they might be going through, it’s important to recognize that there’s still a distinction between what we find to be helpful and what they find to be helpful.
What’s truly helpful is whatever the other person finds helpful.
There is a subtle difference between these two approaches. When we only consider what we would find helpful, we’re mostly focused on ourselves and what we would want in a particular situation. But when we consider and actually ask what the other person might need, we’re fully focused on them.
When we approach other people with a self-focused “inward mindset,” we see them as objects. This includes seeing them as vehicles we can use to achieve our own objectives. When we want others to do something for us, it becomes tempting to misapply the Golden Rule for our own purposes.
Rather than respecting others regardless of how they may respond, we instead turn the Golden Rule into a transactional relationship in which we perceive others through a consumer-like perspective. We ask ourselves what the other person will provide in return for our “investment” of time, energy, emotions, and so on. Our treatment of others becomes one half of a transaction, in exchange for their help in meeting one of our objectives.
With this implied contingency, people misuse the Golden Rule to be outwardly nice towards others while still remaining inwardly self-focused.
In some instances, the Golden Rule might even be misused as an “emergency eject button,” a way to avoid taking responsibility for our impact on others. If we treat others how we want to be treated, and they don’t react in the ways that we would want or expect…well, we did our best, didn’t we?! They must be the problem. After all, we treated them exactly how we would want to be treated and they still won’t cooperate—what unreasonable people we work with…!
Treating others with respect shouldn’t be a transaction. It should just be our way of honoring humanity.
Instead, we must ask questions like, “Have I asked the other person how they would like to be treated? Do I take this into consideration when I do my work, so that I can both accomplish my tasks and be helpful to them?”
At Arbinger, we speak of an outward mindset: seeing people as people who matter like we matter. Equating outward mindset with the Golden Rule can seem appealing. It looks like a simple, easy connection that ties outward mindset to a familiar and morally lofty concept.
But an outward mindset is much more than treating others the way we want to be treated. With an outward mindset, we recognize that others have value regardless of how they may or may not reciprocate our overtures. The mere fact that they’re people, just like us, gives them intrinsic value. We also let them voice how they would want to be treated, what would be helpful to them, what their perspective is, and so on.
When we see people as people, our focus doesn’t turn toward ourselves to find the answer of how we ought to treat others. It instead turns us outward to others to discover from them the way they ought to be regarded.