The Platinum Rule is better than the Golden Rule at work, because not everyone is the same.
Golden rule vs. Platinum rule
We’ve all heard the Golden Rule, Treat others the way you want to be treated. Sounds good, right? Be kind, treat people well. What could go wrong with that?
The trouble is, that the Golden Rule assumes that we all want to be treated in the same way, which is not true, particularly if we come from different cultures. In diverse workplaces, which most are these days, you’re a lot better off following the Platinum Rule, Treat others the way they want to be treated.
How we like to be treated
I did a short presentation on this recently for students in a Human Resources program. I used a short (15 item) checklist, called How I like to be treated,from a book by Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe. A few of the statements they can check: I like people to tell me when I make a mistake; I want the boss to listen to my concerns; I want the freedom to do things my own way.
I don’t tell the students the purpose of the exercise, but when they finish, I let them know that the more statements they checked, the more American they are culturally, and that people from many different cultures wouldn’t necessarily check the same boxes. It comes as quite a shock to my North American students!
Any practice can be comfortable or not, depending on your culture
But the reality is that many common practices for students growing up in the USA, such as calling people by their first names vs. more formal address, touching people, even on the shoulder or arm, asking someone’s opinion in front of other people, giving them a thumbs up, getting right to work instead of making small (relational) conversation first, are comfortable for some people and insulting or embarrassing for others.
I saw a short video recently in which a Palestinian teacher beautifully modeled the platinum rule by how she greeted her young students. The students line up in front of the teacher. On the wall is a chart with different symbols: an open hand, a handshake, a heart, a fist. Without saying a word, the students touch one of the symbols and receive the greeting they prefer—a handshake, a warm hug, a high five, or a fist bump. They get a big smile no matter which greeting they pick. And each day, the students get to decide which greeting feels right that day. I was utterly charmed and touched by the love and respect demonstrated by this approach. It is so gentle.
How do you know how to treat people at work?
Workplaces are a lot more complex than the limited example about greetings. So, how do you know how people want to be treated at work? We don’t automatically know all the nuances of others’ cultures or even individual preferences. But there is a simple solution—ask them!
Inner work first
First, start with some inner work. Recognize that we all see from our own perspectives and through the lens of our experience, but we can learn from others, without making them or ourselves wrong.
Ask and Listen
Then, with genuine curiosity and willingness to be educated, ask them what they prefer and listen respectfully to their answers. Empathy and an open mind, can also help you build cultural Intelligence and respond appropriately across differences.
Of course, people from different cultures are learning about common U.S. practices at work every day, but expecting people with different customs to automatically switch and adjust doesn’t help build mutual respect.
No workplace needs unnecessary conflict
Because these cultural confusions and assumptions provide a lot of fuel for unnecessary workplace conflicts, one of the 12 weeks in the Conflict Management certificate program I created at SSU, is on intercultural communication and unconscious bias at work. Education in this area can do a lot to promote the harmonious and productive workplaces that we all want.