Thursday, May 21, 2009
The Platinum Rule
There may be settings in which this makes sense. But as a guideline for academic administration, it's a howler of the first order. It's a spectacularly bad idea. It's so deeply wrong that I have to wonder if I'm missing something, since no intelligent person who gave it a minute would knowingly endorse an idea of such colossal wrongitude. Yet it persists.
First, and most obviously, some wants are simply inappropriate. They're selfish, or unrealistic, or antithetical to the direction of the organization. Applying the platinum rule to a 'me-first' employee is a train wreck waiting to happen. Prima donnas want exemptions to general rules, on the grounds of their own inherent specialness. The platinum rule suggests indulging them. If you've ever managed people, you know what happens when you say 'yes' to selfish and/or idiotic requests: you multiply them. When you reward prima donna behavior, you'll get more of it. Good luck with that.
Second, wants are not fixed. They're contextual, often relative (or 'positional'), and somewhat malleable. Sometimes they're even internally contradictory. Henry Ford once said, correctly, that if he'd asked the public what it wanted, it would have said faster horses. Any parent has lived through the kid indifferently rejecting an activity, only to love it once pushed into it. Which was the true want?
Too, some people are so acutely attuned to status that they want whatever their coworkers have, plus one. (It's a variation on the teenage girl who wants to be just like all her friends, but a little bit prettier.) If you have more than one person like this – and you do – then want-fulfillment is literally impossible.
Besides, how do you judge one person's wants against another's? Assuming finite resources, what basis would you have for judging competing claims? Whose wants count? Students want more and faster service, but staff want shorter hours and lighter workloads. Whose wants count? Adjuncts want full-time jobs, but taxpayers want lower costs. Who wins?
No. This is nonsense on stilts. Appeasement is not an ethic.
Managing expectations is a basic part of managing people. I've known some cc faculty who believe that they're properly entitled to the 2/2 teaching load of the faculty at Flagship State, though they're curiously silent about the research expectations. I've seen employees who honestly believe that the college is run for their benefit. And yes, I've seen administrators who manage out of ego, which can never really be satisfied. No matter how sincerely these wants are held, they're inappropriate. The mission of the college is the point. If your wants are contrary to the mission of the college, then you should probably find someplace else to work.
In this role, the ethical guideline I've found most useful isn't gold or platinum; it's newsprint. If a given action or decision made the local paper, would I be able to defend it? I don't define 'defend' as 'get universal agreement,' since that's just not reality. But responding to requests with something along the lines of "what would this look like if it were generalized?" can bring a certain impersonal clarity, and can take personal preferences out of the equation. If the biology departments gets special treatment, how will the math people feel about it when it comes out (which it inevitably will)? That necessarily entails saying 'no' to some wants, but most people have shown themselves capable of adapting their wants to some basic parameters.
Am I just getting the platinum rule wrong? Is there some validity to it that I'm just not seeing?
The Platinum rule should be seen as a more "other" focused attempt at the golden rule.
Here's what I mean. The golden rule assumes that your desires for "self" match the desires of others, and therefore doing for them what you would like (want/need) done for you should satisfy their desires or needs as well. This is a good start (hey, who am I to argue with Jesus Christ?)
Of course, the "golden rule" assumes that what is best for you is also best for someone else. It assumes that your wants, desires and needs match the wants, desires and needs of the other person.
Take for example, "I would like a 3% pay raise rather than 0% but having my insurance premium frozen for 2 years." This is clearly a decision the administration would have to make. Which way to go with the limited resources at hand? And a 3% pay raise could more than a 5% increase in premiums for some people. But for others, the freezing of the premium will more than offset the loss of a pay raise.
So the Platinum rule is, essentially, asking that you consider not your preference, not your desires, but the desires and interests of the others and how they may be different from your own.Of course, for the platinum rule to truly work, you need to be able to empathize. This means that you need to not just "try" to put yourself in their shoes through some sort of "thought experiment" but rather you need to get to know the other person. You need to spend time with them. Learn what motivates them. Determine what their situation is and what drives them.
Ultimately, in a large organization you cannot have (as you so clearly point out) individualized decisions for issues that affect the body as a whole. You can't give some a raise, others a premium freeze, and still others ice cream. You must reach some decision that is fair, reasonable, and exercises good stewardship over the limited resources available.
But you can work to understand those you work with, and work for. You can seek to understand what motivates them, and what would truly meet their needs, rather than "assume" that you know what is best.
The Platinum Rule is a great way to start.
Is it really so impossible for you to imagine why on two separate occasions in the last month people have suggested that you need to think not about what you want but about what other people might want? That perhaps it makes sense to respect (maybe not empathize with the other person, but respect) that wants other than our own might be reasonable, legitimate, valid, and maybe worthy of consideration, even if they bear no relation to our own personal wants/needs?
This is not to say that anything goes. Obviously, some wants can't or shouldn't be satisfied. But there is nothing inherently wrong with thinking that our own wants/needs are not the barometer of all other people's wants/needs. And yes, sometimes what the Other wants/needs when it differs from what we want/need can be the solution to some ongoing dilemma. That's not appeasement. It's realizing when the other side has a point, and respecting that the other side has something to contribute. It's realizing that sometimes what we think is the thing that's wrong. It's acknowledging that the people we work with are neither children or "teenage girls" worthy of derision. Is that really such a "spectacularly bad idea"?
He likes mushrooms, hates nuts.
If I cook stuff with nuts in, he's going to be annoyed. Yet I obeyed the golden rule! Thinking about the platinum rule is why I'll sometimes do something like cook pizza, and he can have mushrooms as a topping, and I don't have to have any.
That's a simple example of the positive use of the platinum rule.
Obviously there are potential issues where you try and apply it to academic administration, such as what you point out. But that doesn't invalidate consideration of differences and preferences.
e.g. you don't have to give every department a powerful computer cluster just because the computing department wants one
If you're trying to say that accommodating differences in a fair/defensible way is difficult, then I agree with you. But that doesn't mean that the Platinum rule is 100% inapplicable.
The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
I like beer, so let's have beer after work on Friday.
The Platinum Rule - do as they would wish you to do:
Recognise that not everyone is motivated by the same desires you/the norm are, and provide a range of non-alcoholic, family-friendly options.
In an academic situation - I guess don't assume everyone works to the same incentives. In economic terms, people place different values on different outcomes.
It's hard to know without thinking of specific circumstances.
The summary of the argument was the following quote attributed to Thomas Cathcart: "A sadist is a masochist who follows the golden rule."
I think the platinum rule works better as a social guide than as a determinant of right and wrong.
When your intent is to treat people well and make them feel good, the golden rule only works part of the time. But the platinum rule always works in that situation.
The trick, of course, is that unless you already know what the person wants or they tell you, you have to find out the hard way.
I still cringe at the memories of discovering that some people get offended by what I was taught were simply polite gestures (opening doors, saying 'sir' or 'ma'am' to people you don't know well, etc).
One example: DD recently complained about a classmate who has taken to trying to micromanage her and others in the class. The classmate has absolutely no business telling DD what to do, and has been getting into a social morass because the more she tries to be the top dog relative to the other students, the more everybody gives her the cold shoulder. When DD finally got fed up with being told what to do, the classmate basically said, "As your friend, I'm reminding you because I would want you to remind me if I were forgetting something." This is classic misapplication of the Golden Rule, IMO, so I told DD to remind the classmate of the Platinum Rule and see if it helps. (The classmate has a lot of other issues right now, but they are not ones DD needs to know about.)
However, I'm not sure either the Golden Rule or the Platinum Rule are terrifically applicable in rule or policy formulation in an organization. The relationship of an administrator acting as a hand of an organization to the body of employees as a whole is, I think, fundamentally different than individual social interactions. Sort of like etiquette - some rules are the application of the Golden Rule or the Platinum Rule, and others are just because it makes it smoother and nicer for everyone if everybody does something the same way all the time.
There's a world of difference between rejecting the rule as a rule -- as I do -- and rejecting the idea of taking other people's perspectives seriously. The rule suggests that those other perspectives should 'win.' I don't see that as necessarily true or valid, and I'll go so far as to call it dangerous.
Dr. Crazy's comment is especially misplaced. On her own blog, she recently had a very insightful post about not 'engaging' toxic people. A strict reading of the platinum rule would rule out that move. I think she had it right the first time.
If I didn't give a damn about other perspectives, I wouldn't bother soliciting feedback. But the whole point of the 'rule' as something more than just 'common sense' is precisely that it's a RULE, and that's what I'm rejecting.
Contrary to Dr. C's suggestion, I don't need a rule when others' wants are compatible. (And I'm not contrasting them to my own. I'm explicitly putting the mission of the organization over anybody's individual wants, including my own. I put aside my own preferences on this job every single day.) The whole point of a rule is to handle conflict, and this rule simply fails to do that.
Multiple perspectives are great. Sometimes they conflict. The fact that they conflict renders the rule unintelligible.
Sometimes toxic people may WANT to be mistreated because it validates their worldview, which they are NOT giving up. In this case, the platinum rule would definitely be a mistake.
But wait: Is that statement "all about me" or is it an accurate summary of the job of administration?
I'm sure someone in administration told me that their job in the admin building was to deliver students to me who have been properly advised for their major, passed the required classes, classes taught by faculty who hold them to their learning objectives so that I can do my job. When you have a college that has hundreds or even thousands of different classes, something like the Platinum Rule is needed when dealing with the hundreds or thousands of individuals whose individual needs are essential to the overall success of the enterprise.
Other things, as The Professor points out, cannot be handled this way - but some must be handled this way. College is not an assembly line driven by top-down product-line decisions like GM or (preferably) Toyota.
A DNR order is one of those places where the platinum rule is applied in healthcare. You personally may want them to try to resuscitate you if you have a heart attack or stop breathing. 89 year old cancer patient (let's call him Bob) in the next bed may had different feelings about that. When Bob's heart stops, you do what Bob wants you to do (leave him the hell alone to pass in peace) not what you would want (drugs, tubes, rib cracking thumps on the chest etc.) That said, if a patient is incapacitated, in the absence of any written order, you follow the golden rule and do the best you can to keep that person alive because that's what most people want.
All of these rules must be practiced in the context of yet another principle - that your right to swing your arm stops where my nose begins. These rules are not supposed to be about raging egomania - more about having empathy and sensitivity that others are not the same as you - respecting their wishes even if you would make a different choice.
A good administrator can discriminate between these cases - they create systems that allow the maximum amount of personal choice while safeguarding the organization as a whole. The best administrators know one more crucial rule - that rules are meant to be changed, bent, or broken if the overall good and mission of the organization demands it.
I haven't the faintest idea how this applies to academia or any other office environment beyond simple matters of courtesy. One faculty member prefers to be called "Professor" while another likes "Doctor." Ok fine whatever. You can't manage employees -- and that is what they are! -- by catering to their every whim.
"These are my principles. If you don't like them I have others."
(Groucho, that is...)
For example “I would like brussel sprouts for dinner every night, so I will serve others brussel sprouts all the time.” is clearly not good moral reasoning. “There are foods that I like, so I will give others the foods they like” is better. To me, that’s still the Golden Rule, but maybe that’s what some people see the Platinum Rule as.
But perhaps best of all in the real world is “There are foods I like, while others may like different foods, so I will attempt to give everyone a chance to have food they like, even if it means sometimes some people get food they don’t like.”
I don’t think it’s an accident that an administrator, who is used to thinking about the general implications of particular decisions, tends to see the second and third case above as complying with the Golden Rule, and doesn’t see the need for the Platinum Rule.
And it’s not hard to see how – to him- arguing for a Platinum Rule seems like denying the necessity of case 3 and is therefore counterproductive.
If you're already there in a general sense, it's just another rule which can be misapplied. Really, it's a reminder to have empathy.
*Which in a judge is . . . bad, apparently? I don't even know any more.
So many people told you, in essence, yes. You are getting it wrong. You are very "dogmatic" in your statements condemning the Platinum Rule. You have called it:
- "a howler of the first order"
- "a spectacularly bad idea"
- "so deeply wrong"
- "no intelligent person who gave it a minute would knowingly endorse an idea of.."
- "such colossal wrongitude"
(and you wrote all THAT in just one paragraph!
So while you ask for our input, seeking (ostensibly) some insight into how perhaps you may have gotten it wrong, you have set us up, a priori. Since obviously, "no intelligent person" would buy into it.
Little wonder then, I suppose, that when several (not one, not two, but 6 people comment on how you have perhaps gotten it wrong, you condemn us. Quickly, and swiftly. Set aside for the moment that most, if not all, the comments admitted that the neither the gold, nor the platinum rule, is to be treated as an absolute. Brush aside, if you will the fact that to that point the comments were generally well intentioned, and focused on pointing out that there are places for "walking in the other's shoes rather than assuming they already wear your brand." Swipe all that aside, and you are still left with a rather large elephant in the room.
Perhaps (and just perhaps) the most telling point deals not with the "platinum rule" at all but with the circumstances that, as Dr Crazy points out, caused someone to suggest the platinum rule be applied. Perhaps retrospection, and introspection, rather than empathy, are what is really being recommended. And that, I believe, is a lesson for us all.
None of the responses thus far has shown that any of those objections is wrong. They seem instead to regard the objections as parenthetical.
I'm trying not to trivialize the PR by reducing it to "think about other people." But when I take it seriously, it fails in some pretty fundamental ways.
I don't doubt that some of the objections are sincere. I just don't find them persuasive, since they don't address the meat of any of my arguments.
Frankly, the GR is not much better as a management tool, although it is a helpful reality check (i.e., if you would hate to get a 0.5% raise in a year where healthcare costs go up $2,000), your supervisees will hate it too. But it doesn't offer you a way out.
None of this means you can't treat people as they would like to be treated, or as you would like to be treated. But there is no way that you can manage them this way.
However, my understanding of this rule is that it is to encourage you to examine the situation from the other person's perspective, not to automatically do whatever they want. This kind of principle isn't intended to make you a doormat, but to make you a more thoughtful administrator who still works for the best interest of the institution and all its members, but, where possible, giving others their choice.
Erasmus, the great philosopher of the early sixteenth century, felt that the religious extremes that polarized his time were divisive and tried to advise his contemporaries to accept different viewpoints on matters adiaphora (in this case, religious practices that didn't matter for one's soul's salvation). So what if someone wanted to read a Bible in German or was particularly set on preserving church plate? Did that really matter to the mission of the church (i.e. souls' salvation)? Couldn't everyone tolerate these differences in the more important pursuit of unity?
I'd read this Platinum Rule as a contemporary reworking of similar principles. But it should never be followed slavishly. We're all engaged members of the academy, not doormats. But does it really matter to me or to the institution whether my colleagues teach their seminars in one two-semester class or two one-semester classes? No.
Let me cut to the chase then: your "specific objections" were very much that--specific, almost to the point of identifying what some would say are the "exceptions that would prove the rule." Your point out that "some" wants are inappropriate, that "some" will be prima donas, that "some" people are acutely attuned to status, and that "some" people won't be able to truly know what their wants are.
Perhaps. Maybe "some" are that way. Each commenter allowed for those exceptions, and that is why none of us took the view that the platinum rule should be viewed as an absolute. Each commenter acknowledged the truth in your exceptions, and that those should be treated as such. To quote Dr Crazy "This is not to say that anything goes. Obviously, some wants can't or shouldn't be satisfied."
I will address one of your "points through analogy" however. You mention that Henry Ford said the public would tell him they wanted a faster horse (if they were asked.) You use this as if that means they "crowd" doesn't know what they want. Perhaps that is true, but as many in the business world will tell you, while the "customer" may not know the specific solution they want they are clear on the outcome. In this case, Ford (correctly) realized that what they wanted was "faster" and that the "horse" part was simply the only solution set they understood. For was able to give them what they truly wanted because he took the time to understand them.
As so many commenters have already pointed out, the "PR" is simply meant as a way of stepping out from the "nanny state" or "father knows best" approach (thanks, Dr Crazy!) and listening to what others are saying.
Highly effective leaders are humble, realize they don't have the answers, they listen, hear what is "really" being said, and respond.
We should all ask ourselves whether we have taken the time to really listen, to try to hear what others are really meaning than simply what they are saying. Who knows, what sounds "selfish" may actually be a "better way."
Not that I'm saying you're wrong about what highly effective leaders do, but I'm amused that we're avoiding paternalism (or, horreurs, maternalism) by carefully implementing paternalism.
[the entire thread is full of them OBTW . . . on both sides]
Perhaps DD should invoke the corrollary to the "Nazi Rule" [the first person to compare the other side to Nazi Germany through analogy loses the argument]:
"The person to use a mischaracterization of the other sides argument (straw man) loses the argument."
No wait- if we did that, the Obama administration would be rendered speechless . . .
[see how cleverly I avoided the use of the straw man in branding the entire Obama administration as employing only straw man arguments? It's Fun and Easy!]
Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
Platinum Rule: Do unto ohters as they would like to have done unto them
Double Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would really like to have done unto them, if they kew what is what they really wanted and needed
(parallel to Customer Satisfacton hierarchy:
Level I: Give yoiur customer what they ask for
Level II: Give your customer what they need
Level III: Give your customers what they need to satisfy *their* customers]
Pointy-headed boss: We have to give our customers what they want.
Dilbert: Our customers want better products for free.
Which, again, suggests why the PR is one of many rules which are of no real use in situations other than those involving personal interactions.
Dilbert: Our customers want better products for free.
Someone must have been reading this at Google, Moodle, Firefox and Tweetdeck.
And, when you think about it Dean Dad and wise commentators are providing a better kind of advice and discussion, at the cost of little more than time.
Personality differences! They're our boon and our bane. They're what makes life so rich and fascinating--and often so frustrating, too. Most of us never figure people out. We just richochet through life. We get along great with some people, refuse to deal with others, or deal as little as possible with still others, because they're so--well, different--from us.
But what if you knew the secret of those differences? A product of psychological research and practical application, The Platinum Rule is a proven method of connecting with anyone in the workplace. It's fun, easy to use, and helpful to anyone who's curious about what makes themselves and others tick.
You can learn to handle people the way those people want to be handled...to speak to them in the way they are comfortable listening...to sell to people the way they like to buy...to lead people in ways that are comfortable for them to follow.
In business, especially, people all too often create tension and discomfort by assuming we're all pretty much alike. In fact, most of us, if asked about a philosophy of personal relations, probably would recall The Golden Rule which we learned as kids: "Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You."
The Downside of The Golden Rule
That's an old and honorable sentiment. A lot of good has been done in the world by people practicing The Golden Rule. As a guide to personal values, it can be a powerful force for honesty and compassion. But as a yardstick for communication, The Golden Rule has a downside.
If applied verbatim, it can backfire and actually cause personality conflicts. Why? Because literally following The Golden Rule--treating people the way you'd like to be treated--means dealing with others from your own perspective. It implies that we're all alike, that what I want and need is exactly what you want and need. But, of course, we're not all alike. And treating others that way can mean turning off those who have different needs, desires, and hopes.
Instead, we suggest honoring the real intent of The Golden Rule by modifying that ancient axiom just a bit. We think the secret to better rela
that may be unfair to the individual and uses unrealistic shortcuts to appreciating unique human beings.
But understanding someone's behavioral style isn't mutually exclusive with getting to genuinely know them. Far from it. In fact, using The Platinum Rule can greatly accelerate that process. If you can quickly pick up on another person's needs-based cues and adapt your own behavior, you'll learn to more genuinely value others. You'll see that their needs are just as valid as yours, and you can, if you choose, seek to meet those desires and forge a deeper relationship.
Throughout this book you'll also see that we urge you to improve your listening skills--and give pointers on how to do so. Good listening enriches relationships and in tandem with The Platinum Rule, can help build lasting rapport that is anything but superficial.
Another important point: When we talk about using The Platinum Rule, we're not talking about manipulating people! But, rather, learning, in a way, to speak their language.
It isn't, for example, considered manipulative to speak French when in Paris. Au contraire. It's something you do briefly while on the Frenchman's soil so you can be more compatible. You don't alter your basic nature while in France. Your ideas don't change. But how you present those ideas does change.
Similarly, practicing The Platinum Rule doesn't fundamentally change you or the other person. It empowers you by making you, in a sense, multi-lingual. Knowing how to listen and speak in the "language" of those around you is a delightful, useful tool that can be used to resolve differences, maximize strengths, and enjoy a fuller, more successful life by better understanding yourself and the people around you.
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