You Can’t Do the Best You Can

May 24, 2014

Lou HoltzLou Holtz, the famous football coach, did a video program in the 1980’s entitled “Do Right.” It is one of the most watched inspirational videos of all time.

In it, Lou suggested three little rules he had for every team he ever coached and also for his family.

1) Do Right,

2) Do the best you can, and

3) Treat others the way you would like to be treated.

Each one of these rules sounds logical, but each one can cause problems if applied literally.

I have challenged #3, the “Golden Rule,” in other articles by pointing out that not everyone would want to be treated the way I want to be treated. That problem has led some people to consider the “Platinum Rule,” which is “treat others the way they would like to be treated.”

The Platinum Rule is more flawed than the Golden Rule, because if we treat others the way they want to be treated, we would go broke giving them things that are not particularly good for them.

Rule 3 really boils down to treating each individual the right way. That also implies not treating everyone the same way, because each person has individual needs.

The #1 rule, “Do right,” seems straight forward until we try to make it operational. There are always conflicting forces in any decision, and it becomes a conundrum to know what the right thing really is.

Often we find that the “right” thing to do in the morning is not the best choice for the afternoon. Doing what is right is always situational, and each person’s analysis of that situation will determine the rightness of any particular action.

Therefore there is no absolute right thing to do in any circumstance.

We have to use our judgment.

The #2 rule, “Do the best you can,” sounds bulletproof until we stop and think about it. I have never done anything to the absolute best of my ability because when I think back, there is always something I could have done to improve my actions.

There is no way for me to be as smart as I am capable of, or as clever, or as sensitive. In any of my actions there is always room for improvement: sometimes quite a bit of room.

Striving to do the best we can is a formula for analysis-paralysis. With only a little more thought, we can always come up with something better to handle any situation. Therefore, if we follow Lou Holtz’s second rule to the maximum, we will spend all of our time planning and no time doing.

I am reminded of Edward Deming’s famous formula “Plan, Do, Check, Act.” By repeating this cycle over and over, organizations can learn from their mistakes and provide continuous improvement that moves in the direction of perfection without actually ever reaching it.

The irony is that many groups have found a way to modify Deming’s formula such that it looks like this: “Plan, Plan, Plan, Do, Hope.”

In order to make the most progress toward the goal of perfection, we actually need to jettison the ideal of reaching perfection and take up the cause of progress. That is how we can optimize our performance over time.

In retrospect, I think that Lou Holtz’s three rules would be more operational if they were stated,

1) Do good work,

2) Do the best you can with the resources available, and

3) Treat all people the right way.

These rules are pragmatic and allow us to be flexible as we seek to make each day better than the one before.

Golden Rule or Platinum Rule?

April 5, 2014

Black pot full of gold coinsThe most important rule in business is the one your parents taught you. The famous “Golden Rule” applies to nearly every situation and will normally provide the right answer to any quandary about what to do.

If more leaders would simply treat other people as they would like to be treated, we would have a major improvement in culture in organizations. There is one significant challenge to the Golden Rule that is a special case.

Let’s say that I am a leader in an organization, and I am most happy when stacked up with so much work that it seems impossible to get it all done. I just love to be overloaded.

If I would treat everyone around me by piling more work on them than they can handle, that is not going to produce happy or productive workers.

So, in the special case, where a leader wants things that other people would not appreciate, the Golden Rule breaks down. I claim that does not happen very often, but we do need to allow for the possibility before blindly applying the Golden Rule.

Knowing this conundrum, people got clever and invented the “Platinum Rule,” which states, “Treat other people the way they want to be treated.”

The Platinum Rule was posited by Karl Popper in World War II in The Open Society and its Enemies. That rule seems to avoid the problems with the Golden Rule, but when you stop and think about it, the Platinum Rule has even more flaws than the Golden Rule.

Reason: all people would like more money, less work, more freedom, less responsibility, more cake, etc.

If a leader of an organization would follow the Platinum Rule, it would be a disaster, because the business would quickly go bankrupt. Giving people everything they want would not be good for them or the business.

So, if you cannot always treat people the way you want to be treated, or treat them the way they want to be treated, how do you treat them?

The answer is disarmingly simple. You need to treat people the right way. What does this mean?

Treating people the right way means understanding a lot of things at once. Here are some considerations you must think about before deciding how to treat people.

1. What are their needs? Each person in the world is unique. We cannot assume that what is a good policy toward one person will work for others.

When you treat everyone the same way, you are actually discriminating because you inadvertently favor one over the other.

John Wooden, the famous basketball coach from UCLA, once said, “The most sure way to play favorites is to treat every player the same way.” That quote sounds backward until you stop and think about it.

2. What is in their best interest? Many people lust after things that would cause them harm. Just step inside a jail, and you will see that the overwhelming majority of people are there because they tried to beat the system or break rules.

But here we also need to use judgment, because what may not be in the best interest to one person may be perfectly okay for someone else.

For example, throwing an ice cream social for employees might be a positive event, but if some of the employees have diabetes, the party may be ill advised.

When leaders try to determine what is in the best interest of an individual, it is a little like playing God. A leader cannot fully comprehend what an individual is experiencing in life, so trying to guess what is in the person’s best interest is never a perfect science.

3. What is right for the organization? It is often the case that people cannot have everything they want in order for the organization to survive.

We can invent a set of rules for a utopian existence for employees, but ultimately they will not be employed very long because the organization will die quickly.

Leaders need to consider a complex blend of individual and organizational needs before making up rules.

4. What is right for the planet? We are increasingly aware that our fragile spaceship is hurting. Life is already becoming intolerable with brutal swings in weather patterns.

It is not hard to imagine the suffering that mankind will be forced to endure if we are unable to reverse the trends we already see.

We do not want it to be too hot or too cold or too dry or too wet. We don’t want 30 foot waves crashing through our front windows. We would prefer that tornados become a thing of the past and earthquakes stop their rumbling.

When you stop and think about the very narrow set of conditions in which we are comfortable and all the possible ways things can go wrong, it is a miracle we have managed to survive as a species so long.

5. What treatment shows people that we care? That is a complex question, because we care about a lot of things simultaneously.

We need to balance all these things and make judgments in how we treat people. Given the infinite variety of people and conditions, that means some people are not always going to feel well served.

While we need to keep all these questions in play, my thesis is that the good-old “Golden Rule” is a pretty good first approximation for how to treat others.

It takes into account all of the variables above, and it works in most cases. If you are a person who would want what others do not want, you need to make the appropriate adjustment to the rule, but for the rest of us, we should seek to treat others the way we would like to be treated if the roles and situations were reversed.

Your Reputation: A Dozen Ways to Protect It

May 17, 2010

Few things in life are as important as your reputation. What people think and say about you when you are not present has everything to do with your level of happiness and success in this world. I think everyone knows this intuitively, yet many of us sometimes behave as if we are not cognizant of that aspect of life.

We can all improve our lot in life if we remain alert to how other people interpret our words and actions. For example, if you are known as the person who is fun to be with and work with, you will have many more opportunities in life than if your reputation is one of a cantankerous individual who is difficult to please and a general pain to be around. If the impact of one’s reputation on the quality of life is so well understood, why is it so easy to get caught up in the moment and do or say things we regret later?

I believe we just forget that there are no time outs in life, and the camera is rolling every minute. That leaves us vulnerable to lapses which are hard to erase later. A damaged reputation takes 3-4 times as much energy to repair than a good one takes to maintain.

Here are some simple ideas that can help preserve your precious reputation. All of these are common sense, but unfortunately for some people they are not common practice. It is wise to remind ourselves of these simple, but profound, rules daily.

1. Follow the Golden Rule. We all learned this simple rule in our youth. I believe it is one of the most tangible ways to demonstrate Emotional Intelligence. There is a flaw in the Golden Rule if you take it literally in every situation because some people may not appreciate being treated as I would like to be treated. I think this is a small point. Someone invented a corollary to the Golden Rule called the Platinum Rule which is, “Treat other people as they would like to be treated.” I have a bigger problem with the Platinum Rule than the Golden Rule because treating people like they would like to be treated in a business environment would mean giving out huge raises, lots of additional vacation, not very much work, and in general be detrimental to the organization. Sticking with the intent of the Golden rule is really just treating people the right way.

2. Be positive. To keep a good reputation, try to have your ratio of positive to negative remarks be as high as possible. You may not even realize when you are coming across as a negative person because the words you use to frame conversation are coming from your own paradigm, so they appear to you as affirmative statements. It is a good idea to test how you are coming across by either listening to yourself on a audio tape or reading some of your own e-mails to identify if you are habitually coming across as a positive or negative person. Believe it or not, it is hard to tell if you have not specifically checked this out. Reason: people with low Emotional Intelligence are the ones with the biggest blind spots.

3. Always do more than your share. It is curious that in most relationships both individuals believe they are constantly going more than half way toward making the relationship be successful. Yet the truth is, it is impossible for both people to consistently give more than their fair share. If you have a reputation for being generous with your time, talent, advice, caring, money, and other resources, people will gravitate toward you instinctively. You will have a reputation of a caring doer rather than a selfish slacker.

4. Admit mistakes. It is impossible to go through life without making numerous mistakes. If you are smart enough to readily admit when you have done something wrong or stupid, you will draw others to you because of your genuine nature. If you are duplicitous and try to duck any shortcomings, you will have the reputation of being phony or just plain dishonest.

5. Be kind. Individuals who have empathy for others gain a reputation for kindness that pays off in reciprocal kindness they receive from others. People do favors for other people they like.

6. Listen more than you speak. If you have the ability to hold your own tongue and sincerely appreciate the input of others, they will share many valuable ideas with you. But if you are always first to talk or a person who is constantly stating opinions as if they are hard facts, people are going to instinctively turn you off. Don’t be a bore.

7. Be humble. Nobody likes a perpetual braggart. Remember that your opinion of yourself is transparent to other people. If you put yourself on a higher pedestal than everyone else, you will have a tough time making and keeping friends in this world.

8. Be reliable. Build a track record of doing what you say you’re going to do. When you follow through with intentions precisely, you gain the stature of one who can be counted upon when things really matter. When circumstances prevent you from meeting commitments, immediately inform the other person of the delay and the new estimated due date.

9. Learn to read body language. The majority of input about how others see us does not come from the words they use when talking with us. It is the tone of voice and body language that are the telltale signs of how that person views us. It is imperative to understand the subtle facial and body position movements that allow you to read the situation and modify your behaviors if you are on thin ice.

10. Offer and ask for assistance often. By showing a willingness to help other people and also a willingness to take advice from others about yourself, you build a collegial relationship with them. By helping others, we are really helping ourselves to a great extent.

11. Operate from a sense of values. Know your own spiritual sense of what is right and follow that beacon in everything you do. It really helps if you have a set of written values for yourself. You can share these with other people, and it will let them know you operate from a solid footing in life.

12. Keep your ear to the ground. Keep attuned for evidence of how other people are viewing you. This means being alert to the subtle cues and learning to read between the lines. If you suspect there is some dirt being spread about you that is unflattering to your reputation, it is up to you to take responsible action to protect that precious element of your life.

These twelve things, when applied daily in your dealings with others, can go a long way to preserving your reputation. There are numerous other things we could add to this list. The point is that your reputation governs how successful and happy you are in the professional world. Guard it carefully using the ideas listed above.