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Why leaders should ignore the golden rule


Most of us grew up with parents and teachers who taught us the golden rule; treat others the way you want to be treated. This is a wonderful rule of thumb for most aspects of life until you try to apply it to leadership. If your goal is to be a leader who builds strong relationships with a wide range of highly motivated people to follow you in the direction you’re headed, the Golden Rule hurts your efforts.

Here’s the inherent problem with the golden rule – not everyone wants to be treated the way you want to be treated.

The manager we’re coaching is a very caring leader who desperately needs to bring his team together for events like happy hour, birthday parties, and team holidays. He recently received feedback from both his boss and several team members that they don’t like attending such events. This manager feels that his boss does not support his role as a manager and that some team members are not caring enough or motivated enough to be team players. If you know the players involved, this manager’s guess is far from correct. He leads a very diverse team; the way he wants to be treated is not the way his boss or team members care to be treated.

A far better rule of thumb for leaders is to treat others as they, not you, want to be treated. If you treat people the way they want to be treated, you will find that more people want to follow you as a leader.

To determine how people want to be treated, we take a very simple approach and divide people into four relationship styles.

  • Supporters: They focus on relationships. They prefer to be in positions where they can be helpful and supportive, and this help and support is highly valued by others.
  • Analytics: They focus on process. They prefer to be in situations where they can work independently and autonomously to accomplish tasks and improve the process.
  • Drivers: These are performance oriented. They prefer to direct the completion of the task through the help and support of others.
  • Harmonizers: They are a mix of the above three and prefer to work as a team, which may require them to play different roles, and they are focused on making sure everyone gets along.

So, how do people want to be treated? First, I need to emphasize the importance of not pigeonholing people. While in one situation people may like to be treated the same way, in another situation they may prefer to interact with people quite differently. We also recognize that even though someone may be dominant in one style of leadership, communication, or behavior, they may change how they interact with others depending on the needs of the leader or the situation.

However, here are some rules of thumb to help build strong relationships with different styles.


Support focuses on relationship building: Lovers care deeply about relationships and may focus more on feelings than facts. To work successfully with a supporter, take the time to demonstrate that you genuinely care about them as a person and focus on building and maintaining trust. Fans are gullible by nature. However, if you break that trust, you will have a hard time getting it back.

Recognize their work. Followers have a strong need to be liked and work best when they feel valued by others. Take the time to recognize the unique contributions and ideas they bring to the table.

Be patient. Fans often ask a lot of questions that can sometimes seem unreasonable. Realize that fans may ask questions when trying to build a relationship.

Listen. Followers are usually good listeners and appreciate this quality in others. Practice being an active listener and ask them for their opinions and feelings about the issue or problem being discussed.

Avoid conflicts. Adherents have a strong desire for harmony. When approaching problems and challenges, stay positive and solution-focused.


Speak clearly and precisely: Analysts need timely and detailed information to feel confident in making decisions and accomplishing tasks. Communicate honestly and often to make sure they have the information they need to proceed.

Support their approach: Your analytical staff is cautious and reserved, processing information slowly. They approach problems and tasks in a logical and organized manner and are willing to explore all options before making a decision. Be patient and be prepared to repeat information and provide additional information when requested.

Don’t take it personally: Analytics can seem unemotional and difficult to read. They are also often uncomfortable bringing personal feelings into the mix. Recognize that caution and unemotionalness are characteristic of their style, even though it may come across as aloof.

Give them autonomy: Analysts prefer to be in situations where they can work independently and autonomously to complete their tasks. Allow them to focus and work independently if possible.


Focus on business: Drivers care deeply about performance, results, and unlike fans, relationships are secondary to results. They focus on facts, not feelings. Discussing problems/challenges in a way that focuses on personal feelings and problems causes drivers to perceive others as weak. Focus on the business and stay results oriented.

Communicate effectively: Drivers process information quickly and do not need details and long explanations. Speak to them directly, purposefully and concisely.

Ask, don’t tell: Drivers are often impatient. I love the saying, “You can tell them, but you can’t tell them much.” Don’t try to tell the driver what the solution is. Instead, ask questions that allow them to find answers. They have a strong need to win. Give them options and let them choose a solution.

Be persistent: Drivers are self-confident and assertive, which can sometimes come across as bossy and aggressive. When dealing with difficulties and problems, raise your level of assertiveness to match theirs.


Appeal to their strong sense of commitment: Harmonizers love to work in a team and make excellent team players. Motivate them by appealing to their commitment to the team’s success. Make sure they can clearly see how their role contributes to the success of the team, department and organization.

Take a moment to connect: Harmonizers are personal and sociable. Take the time to ask them questions and connect with them on a personal level. They like humor and can take things a little less seriously than other styles. Keep things light and humorous whenever possible.

Encourage their creativity and innovation: Harmonizers are creative and open to change. Encourage them to innovate and support their desire to try new things, even if they don’t work out. Focus on coming up with multiple options and look for new or unique approaches.

Strong teams are made up of diverse personalities and talents. Being able to identify and understand the styles of your team members – and adapt yours accordingly – will help you build productive relationships that lead to success for both you as a leader and your team members.

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