The Problem with Golden Rules and Management Clichés
By Ed Bernacki | June 30, 2008
I subscribe to several management newsletters. One starts with a 'Thought of the Day' from some notable guru. One arrive the other day proclaiming:
"Practice Golden-Rule 1 of Management in everything you do: manage others the way you would like to be managed."
American Brian Tracy, a well known motivational speaker is quoted. I suspect most people would say that this makes sense. We should manage other people like how we want to be managed. Yet something about this bothered me.
One of the interesting tools for improving the way we solve problems is to notice the implicit assumptions that are being made. With this tool, it was easy to see the flaws in this golden rule:
- One assumption is that other people want to be managed the way you would want to be managed.
- Another assumption is that people basically think alike and the way they think is just like the boss.
This is clearly not true and downright dumb.
One aspect of management that I have studied is thinking styles. A more formal label for this work is cognitive diversity. The simplest way to explain the differences in thinking styles is reflected by graffiti I once saw. It showed two cartoon characters. One said, "Question everything!" while the other asked, "Why?"
Some people live their entire lives questioning everything as this is what makes sense to them. If you tell them that there is set way to do something, they will question it. They are not being disobient. They are thinking about the idea by questioning and exploring the issue. Often this leads to new and different ways achieving the result. Anything that smacks of structure often makes these people feel uneasy.
Other people live very happy lives by accepting the rules and guides lines and getting on with it. These structures are what allow you to make decisions and move forward.
If you want to test my assertions, simply ask people in your office two questions and prompt a conversation around these issues:
1. On a typical Saturday morning, who makes a list of things to do for the weekend?
I would bet that one-third of your team will put up their hand. Another third will likely say they do sometimes while the remainder will state that they only list they see is one that their partner puts in their hand. Ironically, all people will end up having a successful weekend even though they go about solving the basic problem – what do I need to do this weekend? – in totally different ways. I do this in my workshops and get some amazing responses from people. The list makers cannot conceive of not making a list and believe others would be more successful if they made list. In fact, several people told me that if they think of something to do on Sunday, they write it down to be able to cross it off their list. The non list makers roll their ideas when they hear this.Â
2. Who would make a list for their grocery shopping trips?
Again, I would guess that one-third would say that they make a list. My sister is the master of grocery shopping lists. She has a computer list of what she typically needs from her local grocery store organized by aisle. She prints off the list each week. She has also strategized the optimum time for shopping: Saturday mornings at 8:00 am. Others in my groups laugh at this approach and say it ruins the experience of visiting a store to explore what they can buy for the week. They often say, "I like to challenge myself each week to find something interesting and unexpected to have each week."
Is one approach better than the other? Clearly not as all people seem to buy enough to prevent their families from starving for the week.
The work on cognitive diversity gives us a lot of clues as to how different managers would want to be managed.
As such, if the boss is highly structured and rather adaptive, they will assume his or herÂ staff need lots of structure and detailed briefings for a project. They believe clarity and direction is important for good management. Imagine if a new boss takes over the same team who is a high innovator who does not like structure. They assume you don't need detailed instruction as you can figure it out yourself, you like working on your own, and so on.
It puts a new twist on "Golden Rules". I have read a quote from another speaker who talked of the Platinum Rule: manage others in the way they would like to be managed.
This makes sense to me. Making too many assumptions about the way people want to be managed leads to people failing to be fully engaged in their jobs. No organization can afford this. The challenges we face in organizations demand that we take some new approaches to how we manage people to get the results we need.