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The Golden Rule Broken

By May 4, 1996July 12th, 2023Management and Leadership4 min read

At a very early age we are taught the virtue of the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Sound advice. And if everyone guided their daily life with this rule, we would all live in a better, more peaceful world. Does this rule, however, apply to a family business?

Since ancient times philosophers have tried to understand human behavior and categorize personalities. Categorizing or “typewatching”as Carl Jung, the Swiss-born psychiatrist preferred, dates back to the 1920s when he boldly suggested that “human behavior was not random but was in fact predictable and therefore classifiable.” Jung believed that differences in behavior are a result of preferences, which form the foundation of one’s personality.

In case you think this column is headed in the direction of a theoretical treatise on Jungian psychology – relax. The thrust of this article can be stated simply: In a family business different personality types are an inevitable fact. Understanding how these various types interact will enhance communication and strengthen the business.

Have you ever encountered someone that is highly perceptive, that “tunes-in” and “reads” other people’s sensitivities and vulnerabilities? Salespeople sometimes describe this skill as “picking up on other people’s hot points.” Undoubtedly, you have also known individuals that are blind to how they come across and present themselves. These people often lack the sensitivity to read even their own human environment.

This first personality type knows and understands themselves better than others. Because of this, they are usually in a position to control, lead, or even manipulate others. The second type of individual, however, is in a more precarious position, says Dr. Michael Cofield, (Integrated Cognitive Restructuring, 1996). “If others understand you better than you understand yourself, you may become enslaved by them.”

The purpose of understanding these and other personality styles is to reduce or eliminate communication hazards. Categorizing is a judgment free way of explaining normal behavior. In this context, it is very important to understand that no categories or types of personalities are better or worse, good or bad, or right or wrong – only different. Otto Kroeger with Janet Thuesen, in their useful (and mandatory for OD and HR professionals) book, Type Talk at Work (Tilden Press, 1992) demonstrate that typewatching celebrates these differences and that doing so is constructive, and not a means to create strife.

Effective organizations have learned to appreciate different “types.” Organizations with the good fortune of having several types view differences as a strength and as an opportunity to cultivate a strong team with synergy. A number of very effective tools are available to objectively classify and type personalities. The Hartman Values Profile, The Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, as well as several DISC scaled instruments (Cleaver, Performax, HumanSide) are the most common and are available through many professional psychology practices and full service consulting groups.

Although each of these indicators use their own terminology for classifying personality types, the DISC instruments are readily available, simple to administer, quick to score, and have time-tested interpretations. DISC is the acronym for:


Let’s say, for example, that through the use of a DISC instrument your profile indicates that you are “High Dominance.” This is not uncommon in a family business. After all, someone has to have the ideas, get the ball rolling, push for change, and when necessary, blast through the bureaucracy.

But can you do it alone? Probably not. (If you are truly high dominance, you’re probably upset now.) High dominance people tend to be less concerned with how others feel and are less apt to follow through with details. To enhance your personal strengths, you will probably need help from several people. You will want a “High Influencer,” someone to sell your ideas and make people feel good about new ideas and changes (very important during restructuring and downsizing). You may also need someone that is very steady and “High Steadfast” to perform the work and follow through with projects to completion. And as a part of your team, you may also benefit by having an individual with “High Compliance,” someone to ensure that the work is done right, according to specifications.

Founders and CEOs with “High Dominance” tend to lay awake at night dreaming about how they are going to change things. They are impatient and want it now. Subordinates with “High Compliance,” however, tend to stay awake at night dreaming of ways to stop change. They want more time, more data. Too often, CEOs surround themselves with people that are just like them. Hiring “mirror images” is not only a warning sign of a bad hire, but usually leads to “blind spots” which invariably have a negative impact on the organization.

Although you will seldom find any consultant encouraging you to break the Golden Rule, you may, after determining your management team’s personality types, discover that effectiveness in a business often comes from treating people the way they want to be treated rather than “doing unto others as you would have others do unto you.”