The Golden Rule as a Way of Life

The Golden Rule as a Way of Life

For some, the Golden Rule ethic of empathy and respect for the other goes far beyond its utility as a winning business strategy. It defines all their business relations, because they consider it a law of life. For example, the CEO of a large restaurant chain said that he is best able to resolve conflicts by taking a sympathetic view of other people’s positions, even when he disagrees with them. To accomplish this, he begins by assuming that other people generally operate in good faith. He knows full well that this may not be true of everyone: “There are people who would do anything for a dollar out there, who would step on others without any conscience about it.” But this CEO’s good-faith assumption applies well enough to most of the people he deals with: “I know the public perception is the opposite— greedy, mean-spirited people [who] don’t give a damn—but my experience tells me the opposite: most people are good people.”

With this notion as his operating assumption, this CEO is able to get inside the source of potential business conflicts and gain the insight he needs to prevent or resolve said conflicts: “If you assume, when you’re listening to them and dealing with them, their best motives as opposed to anything else, at least you’ll understand where they are coming from with more clarity. . . . It gives you just a better appreciation of what the other side is saying to you. It doesn’t mean that it’s right or that it’s consistent with your values. But it does give you a better appreciation of where they’re coming from and maybe an insight on how to resolve the conflict and deal with the particular business issue. I don’t consider it a business strategy. It’s a tactic of life.”

Such a fundamental law (or “tactic”) of life can be discovered through personal experience, or it can be found in spiritual or religious tradition. The Golden Rule has religious roots, and many business leaders consider it to be a mandate of God. For example, Rich DeVos, the chairman and CEO of Amway, explained his allegiance to the Golden Rule in this way: “We start with the premise that we’re each created by God and, therefore, we respect each other. So that’s just a basic part of my life that you try to live an honest, trustworthy life. Well, that automatically translates into how you deal with your employees. It translates into how you discipline your employees, if you have to. That you don’t hit them over the head and throw them out the door because they made a mistake. You have means whereby you sit with them and try to help them get straightened out and get on the right road and get on with it. All those things are part of the general way in which you deal with your business.”

What DeVos refers to as a “general way” of doing business is really a total commitment to acting in a manner consistent with the Golden Rule. More than a strategic choice, it is a way of being that follows from a galvanizing vision of the kind of life one wants to live and the kind of person one wants to be. In DeVos’s case, the vision is religiously inspired, yet he also is acutely aware of the practical, real-world benefits of his commitment. When everyone in a company is out for themselves, the company inevitably stalls, and everyone pays a price for the self-centered atmosphere. When the Golden Rule ethic is widely shared, however, as DeVos pointed out, the company is in a position to thrive: “There’s a wonderful sense of duty and responsibility on the part of most people. Otherwise, the whole system fails. You can’t do it by having a policeman at the door or having a truant officer check up on every employee to make sure they are really sick. You work on a matter of trust. That’s how the world runs. And when you don’t have that trust, the world falls apart. But our world’s running pretty good, and that’s the world I live in.”

The Golden Rule can be many things. It can be an understanding, a feeling, a way of life. I began this chapter by noting the importance of the understanding that the Golden Rule encapsulates: the insight into another’s wants and needs that only can be gained by the cognitive process of perspective-taking. I then noted the importance of empathy, a feeling that comes out of the process of sharing emotions with another. Perspective-taking and empathy are essential parts of the Golden Rule and the ethic of mutual respect that it represents. But even these key processes are not the whole story. There is also a philosophical part that can go broader and deeper than the acts of sharing other people’s perspectives and emotions.

When a person adopts the Golden Rule because it is an idea that the person truly believes in, it becomes part of the person’s moral identity and, eventually, a way of life for that person. It transforms all of the person’s relationships, including those with partners, employees, customers, clients, colleagues, and even competitors. This kind of total commitment is not at all incompatible with a strategic use of the Golden Rule simply because it is good policy; in fact, the former may grow out of the latter. But it does create a more reliable tendency to behave according to the rule in all of one’s business transactions. It is this consistency that yields the strongest trust, because one acquires a reputation as someone who can be counted on for decency and respectful treatment.

Strategic choices guided by a sure sense of one’s best interests are well and good—and in this chapter, as in the rest of the book, I have made the case that the moral way is always in one’s long-term best interests. The Golden Rule, along with the perspective-taking and empathy that play it out in everyday transactions, is the moral way when it comes to dealing with other people in business or in other realms of life. Strategic uses of the Golden Rule are constructive and beneficial to all parties. Yet even more powerful and mutually rewarding is a commitment to a belief system and a way of life that encompasses the Golden Rule.

Moral imagination, as I have written, is necessary for the act of transporting yourself into another’s thoughts and feelings, just as it is necessary for the creative business insights discussed in Chapter 3. What triggers moral imagination? There are many answers , but one of the most prominent has to do with beliefs that are inspiring and uplifting. In the same way that noble purposes spur the kinds of imaginative moral creativity I wrote about earlier, a belief in the Golden Rule as a purpose in itself leads to a general use of moral imagination for perspective-taking, empathy, and human-relations solutions that are based on mutual respect. A purpose acts as a motivator, fueling the drive to employ your moral imagination, as well as an integrator, keeping you committed to moral imagination in all your transactions.

Every particular decision to do the right thing is a step toward a moral advantage. When unified by an overarching moral purpose, all the separate steps synchronize and pull together with harmony, consistency, and vigor. The particular decisions become dependable and compelling, a cherished part of who you are. As I will explore in the next chapter, this principle also applies to that befuddled aspect of conduct that long has been seen as the most problematic of all: business ethics.