It's safe to say that we each wish to be treated fairly at work. We each prefer to be considered with kindness and respect. We tend to not enjoy being castigated, intimidated, made to feel ignorant or stupid, demeaned or dressed-down - not even if we have made a mistake. As the Golden Rule states: Treat others as you would wish to be treated. This moral standard applies in all real-world domains, including work. So, why do we find exceptions to this rule and act on them on occasion? And how can we do better?
As a graduate student in Geological Sciences - many years ago, now - I remember asking a question in my Thermodynamics for Geoscientists class. Back then I thought (and still do) that there are no stupid questions. Nevertheless, my professor, who also happened to be the Dean of the College of Natural Sciences - so a very important person, clearly - replied in total exasperation "How can you NOT know that?!" and followed up with laughter in front of the entire class. What made that man use an exception to the Golden Rule with me at that point in time? I think he had little respect for me and felt like because I didn't know something that I deserved to be made to feel ashamed of that. This frequently happens in many workplaces, especially where there is steep competition for rank, status and other incentives. If you don't know something, you should pay some sort of embarrassment/shame price. It's no wonder, especially if there is a prevalent shaming culture in an organisation, that some people at work learn to never say "I don't know" or "I'll have to get back to you" or "I should probably know that, but I don't, let me think about it and let's reconvene in 24 hours."
A sense of power, lack of empathy, impatience/annoyance, professional low self-esteem, jealousy or a mix of all these complex feelings can get in the way of heeding the Golden Rule consistently. Time pressures can also influence our ability to comply with the Golden Rule. Sometimes people think that they don't have to 'be nice' when they have more power than another person because who is going to call-them-up on their actions? Power can protect someone from being challenged or held accountable for their bad behaviour. Breaking the Golden Rule can actually reinforce a sense of and the perception of power though doing so is, in fact, an abuse of power.
When people lack empathy for others, it is easy to be rude or to embarrass them and feel no remorse. It's like hitting a punching bag and feeling better afterwards. If a person does not acknowledge how emotionally painful it is to feel ashamed, or if he or she refuses to take into account that another person has feelings, then demeaning that person seems perfectly okay and becomes a non-issue. A person may also recall something like this happening to him or her in the past and by toughening-up and enduring that experience, an expectation develops that someone else should and can do the same.
An artificial way to fill a professional low self-esteem reservoir is to use an elixir of criticism and harsh judgment of someone else's work - more Golden Rule exceptions. That liquid evaporates, though, leaving the reservoir consistently dry and in need of supply. A better remedy for low self-esteem is to work deeply internally on the person that one is and wishes to be. Complying with the Golden Rule actually helps this effort. Also, professional low self-esteem can be healthily addressed through coaching/mentoring, continuing education and by building workplace self-efficacy. These self-esteem supports are unflagging and have greater longevity.
Impatience, annoyance and jealousy are normal emotions to experience, even in the workplace. By noticing that they are present and are affecting you, there is less of a chance that they can persuade you to invoke a Golden Rule departure. If it's impatience or annoyance you are experiencing, then you may need to come back to a particular issue if possible. If you cannot, then asking politely for the best answer at this point in time is a nice stopgap. Jealousy is best channelled into your self-improvement plan, your process for self-appreciation and your career management.
Rather than using power and complex negative emotions to call for an exception to the Golden Rule, the task-at-hand is to control those emotions. Time pressures and vanity can sometimes try to persuade us into legitimising an exception. Therefore, one large component of emotional processing is to cover the clock, set pause on the timer and find a private space. If we feel angry, annoyed, or incredulous about a situation or another person at work, we can use those emotions to inform us about what we might need and as an guide for solving a problem. "Okay, I really need to know X, Y or Z and it's really frustrating to not know that, when I think that the person that I'm working with probably should know about the subject or have the answer." Rather than express this annoyance in the direction of the other person, it would be a better outcome to highlight that you think this subject is important and to also explore what resources are required to get at the answer. Workplace discussions and procedures are seldom perfect and so it's unrealistic to expect that there will not be holes in knowledge or plans that need to be filled. A fiery temper about the existence of holes does not help them get filled or repaired, it just upsets people who then try to fill or repair the holes. Contrastingly, a cool, calm temper that considers people as living, breathing beings with feelings can help ensure that a smooth pathway to an answer is laid-out and followed.
When we make an exception to the Golden Rule at work, we may decide afterwards that such a measure was not necessary. As well, we may come to the realisation that inflicting these exceptions to such an important moral code is not the type of professional that we want to be. That's when we can offer a sincere apology. "I regret saying that" or "I wish I hadn't said that" or "I apologise for saying that to you in that way" is a great way to repair the rupture in the relationship that was caused in breaking the Golden Rule. You can even offer a sense of why you acted like you did, for example "I think I let myself get carried away by my emotions" or "I think I get impatient when we talk about this" or "I'm not feeling that great today, so am finding it challenging to remember my manners."
It really is not okay to treat someone poorly at work ever. Imposing a temporary halt on the application of the Golden Rule is a recipe for unhealthy office dynamics and politics. Properly framing feedback with manners and empathy so that it addresses any concerns you may have with someone is the best way to work through organisational challenges and issues. A little bit of coaching/mentoring, practice and collegial support is all that is required.
Blogging about mental health issues for personal and professional development. All material is authored by Cori Lambert unless explicitly stated otherwise. Authentic Consulting and Counselling is located in West Perth, Greater Perth Area.