Thursday, May 21, 2009


The Platinum Rule

Twice in the last month, I've been in meetings at which somebody suggested that the solution to some ongoing dilemma was to use β€œthe platinum rule.” As it was explained to me, the platinum rule is understood in contrast to the golden rule. The golden rule is to do unto others as you'd have them do unto you; the platinum rule is to do unto others as they'd want done unto them. In other words, reject reciprocity as an ideal, in favor of something like empathy.

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?

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