Why Leaders Should Rethink the Golden Rule

In American culture, we’re taught from a young age “the Golden Rule”— to treat people the way you want to be treated. And while I could not agree more with the goal of that statement, most leaders operate with the intention of getting it right, but their execution is wrong — primarily due to a lack of empathy. Yes, empathy…the skill that is often lumped with the term “emotional intelligence”, but never unpacked to uncover it’s true catalyzing power in building influence and helping people successfully lead others.

If you’re not getting the results you want among your team – like more engagement, improved morale, increased loyalty, fewer communication issues, better performance  — it’s possible you could be executing “The Golden Rule” incorrectly, too. The great news is that the solution is simple and incredible results are totally within your reach!

Uncovering the Misunderstanding

“Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

I have both the honor and privilege of working with some of the kindest, most intelligent, hardworking leaders in the country. What I am finding is that many leaders do treat employees the way they themselves want to be treated…they communicate with them the way they themselves would want to be communicated with, they offer employee benefits that they themselves would want, they create products and services they want or would have wanted at their life stage, and so on. Many well-intentioned leaders are working to implement The Golden Rule. They are trying to do good by their people. Is that you?

Sometimes that strategy works. 

However, too often, the strategy does not work and leaders are left scrambling trying to figure out how to best lead employees in today’s post-pandemic workforce. 

Don’t get me wrong, leaders must continue to implement The Golden Rule, but they have to think about it in a way they may not have ever considered before…

The real sentiment behind the Golden Rule is not to treat people the exact way you want to be treated. Instead, it is that you have a certain way you want to be treated, as do other people. So treat them the way they need to be treated to earn you the response you crave – whether it be for them to trust you, respect you, communicate better with you, stay longer, perform better, etc. Communicate with them the way they want to be communicated with. Offer them the benefits and perks that they want. Engage and empower them in the way that will inspire them to stay longer and perform better. 

Is that easy? Sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not. In order to execute The Golden Rule extremely well as I’m discussing here, you must understand your people extremely well. And even more important than understanding them, you must then be able to think like them…which is harder and harder to do the longer you’ve been in a leadership position. Remember, the world may not be the same as it was when you held a position such as theirs, and their own personal experiences at home and at work may not be the same as yours were and are.

The Catalyzing Power of Empathy

Ultimately, leaders must be able to connect with their people if they want to build a stronger team. In order to truly connect, empathy is key. Empathy is the tool that leads you to the answer to the question, “What is my right next step?”

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. And most people stop there, which restricts their progress toward successfully leading and influencing others. Leaders must realize that when it comes to building a strong team, the catalyzing power of empathy lies in your ability to actually think like someone else – think like your direct report, your mid-level manager, your new hire, your front-line employee, your salesperson, your customers, etc. When you can think like someone else, you can uncover a unique-to-the-individual leadership and influence strategy that works! It is because of empathy that your focused effort to execute The Golden Rule will be effective.

Capitalizing on the skill of empathy is not merely an option for connecting leaders and employees in today’s world — it’s the required leadership strategy — because it is the skill that helps you think like them so you can treat them the way they want to be treated – to earn you both the positive results you want! 

It’s important to note that empathy is a tool, not a toy …a skill, not a trait …an art, not a science. Empathy must be mastered, not frivolously practiced. Empathy changes the way you see people. It gives you a paradigm for truly connecting with people in a way that transforms their internal motivation. Empathy can align with and transform their internal motivation. Empathy is the catalyst for achieving infinite connection and optimal results among your team.

Empathy should not be confused with sympathy or compassion. 

Sympathy is an emotional reaction of concern, pity, or sorrow for someone else.

Compassion is caring enough about someone else to take action to serve them.

However, without empathy, there is no certainty that sympathy or compassion or kindness will help leaders gain any degree of influence, connection, or buy-in from their team.

Without empathy, leaders are interacting with people based on what they themselves want or what they assume others want – both of those options leave success to chance. I don’t know about you, but I want a clear plan to the end goal. 

“The future of work demands empathetic leadership.” – Alyson Van Hooser

Stories, Not Just Statistics Strategy

To improve your skill of empathy, you must simply get to know your people. Get to know your people directly from them. Don’t learn about them from articles or the latest research, don’t make assumptions about them based on your past. – you must talk with the people on your team. You must get to know their story. It is in their stories that you will uncover answers to exactly what they need from you to think, feel, and act a certain way. Those answers are how you correctly execute The Golden Rule!

If I am having a conversation with my husband, Joe, he would tell you that in order for him to feel heard by me, I cannot interrupt or interject my thoughts until he is totally finished. He wants to finish his thoughts and then have me share mine once he is totally finished.

What is interesting about that is when I am interrupted by him or someone else, I feel like the other person is really engaged in the conversation, instead of being zoned out.

Two different people. Same action, different interpretations, different stories. 

If you asked Joe about talking with people, asked him what he likes and doesn’t like when having a conversation with someone…Joe would likely tell you a story such as this, “I was taught growing up that you aren’t supposed to interrupt people, that doing so is rude. So, I learned to not interrupt people and do not appreciate when I am interrupted.”

My story would be different. If you asked me about how I learned to communicate then I would tell you stories about how I grew up. If I wanted something, I learned to speak up and speak fast… and I learned over and over that strategy paid off. I learned that if I waited, the opportunity might be gone forever. 

In my example, both people want to feel heard.. In order to make that happen – because people who feel heard are more likely to want to work longer and harder with you – in order to meet that need, it takes two different actions from the leader. If I want Joe to feel heard, I must keep my mouth shut, I’ve learned to do that. If Joe wants me to feel like he is interested, he speaks up even though that’s not his natural tendency. We know each other’s story so we know how to communicate with one another. And, this is incredibly important….

If you have read to this point and were thinking that this is the exact reason you have done or considered the DISC assessment, or Myers-Briggs, the True Colors profile, or some other test to help you and your team learn about one another…the Stories, Not Just Statistics strategy takes this to a level at which those tests cannot compete.

Standardized tests show you how similar or how different you are. From my experience, between people who are different on a team, tests serve to divide more than they unite…now people can point a finger to just how different we are. The test don’t breed oneness. Instead, when you learn someone’s story, it sticks with you. It’s memorable. It not easily forgotten like personality types, colors, or numbers can be. Stories can bond you through vulnerability, compassion, and comedy…depending on the stories you seek and hear. Stories do what statistics can’t – they bring people together through your differences. Stories unlock answers to how you can lead and influence at an elite level.


For those you wish to influence, you must get to know their story so you know exactly how to serve them.

The Future of Work Demands Empathetic Leadership

Maybe, just maybe, the one who created the Golden Rule was telling us to start with empathy all along if we want to truly connect with people and make a positive impact on the people around us. If you want to lead and influence with your team, you must work to set aside your own bias and truly get to know the people around you…so you can truly treat them the way they want to be treated.

As you’re interacting with people today, make sure you’re not unintentionally hurting your team – causing confusion, distrust, uncertainty, and frustration. – by not treating them the way they want to be treated. Instead, pause for a moment and make time to get to know some of their story. Ask them questions such as:

  1. Who is the best communicator you know and why? You might just learn some tips on how to communicate better with them from their answer.
  1. When you were in school, did you parents keep a close eye on your grades or did you do your own thing? This may give you insight into how much oversight they do or don’t like from their supervisor. 
  1. Did you do chores growing up? If so, did you earn any money or rewards for doing them? This might give you insight into how they like to feel appreciated…maybe they want money, words of encouragement, a handwritten note, public recognition, or something else. 

Anytime you want to know a story, a great place to start is by telling your own story. This is one of the only times I suggest leaders talk before they listen. Share your story, let your people get to know you. When the expectation is clear around how you like to be treated, they are more likely to actually treat you that way! And, when you open up to them, due to the law of reciprocity, they’ll be more likely to open up to you. If they ask you why you’re telling and asking stories, be honest! Tell them you’re trying to get to know them better so you can be the absolute best leader possible for them!

Imagine having a leader who serves your needs. That’s someone you’ll go all in for long-term. Wouldn’t that make a dream team? It’s possible! And it starts with you. Go talk with your people!

Alyson Van Hooser

Alyson Van Hooser, Pres & CEO, Van Hooser Leadership. With the grit that only comes from tough experiences, Alyson has learned a thing or two about personal and professional success. From her management experience with Walmart, as an elected city council member, bank manager — all before the age of 30 — Alyson has wisdom well beyond her years! Her podcast, Stake: The Leadership Podcast, offers a fresh perspective on leadership and helps multiple generations successfully work together! Connect with Alyson on LinkedIn.


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