Empathy and the Platinum Rule

We all know the golden rule, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” But when it comes to having empathy, there is higher ideal we can strive for—the platinum rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”

Colored pencils

Dennis Skley, licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

The difference is subtle, but mastering it indicates a significant mental shift in how you think about others. It requires you to step outside yourself and understand things from another person’s perspective.

Here is an example with two people I knew. One was very quiet and reserved. They preferred to keep their head down, work hard, and accomplish their goals efficiently. One-on-ones with this person were always extremely short. Status reports were sufficient, and the pleasantries of conversation were often omitted.

Another colleague was outgoing and personable. They loved having a good discussion—it never got out of hand or veered too far off topic, but getting to know each other personally was important for them to feel connected to the team.

Having long, personal talks with the first person would have been extremely uncomfortable for them and wouldn’t have improved their sense of purpose on the team. But having an abrupt, no-nonsense one-on-one with the second person would have left them feeling unfulfilled and distant. Learning these differences in how they wanted to be treated was crucial in helping them feel valued.

Another example is communication styles. If your company has real-time chat, certain people will prefer it over walking to your desk to talk in person. Some prefer the higher bandwidth of face-to-face conversation and will use chat only as a last resort. Some like talking on the phone and others find that anxiety-inducing. As a leader, you should learn how your employees communicate best and approach them on their own terms.

Behavioral preferences

Dr. Tony Alessandra is the author of a book called "The Platinum Rule" in which he describes four basic personality types in business. These, like any personality categorization, should be taken with the caveat that no one can be described by a single trait. But the basic motivations and behaviors of these personality dimensions can be a useful way to structure your learning about how people like to be treated.

These are the four facets he proposes:

  • Directors: Goal-oriented, driven, controlling
  • Socializers: Enthusiastic, persuasive, gregarious, willing to take risks
  • Thinkers: Methodical, persistent, perfectionistic
  • Relaters: Friendly, risk-averse, loyal

Figuring out the dominant style of each of your employees will help you learn how to adapt your approach to each person so you can reach them in the way that suits their needs and desires.


During your next round of one-on-ones, ask each person how they like to be recognized or rewarded for their work. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Do they prefer public or private recognition?
  • Gifts or words?
  • If gifts, what type? Money, trinkets, food, books, etc.
  • If words, should they be delivered in writing or verbally in person?