My secondary school alma mater, Hastings High School, recently asked me to be the keynote speaker at their upcoming commencement ceremony this June. I am both flattered and a bit at a loss: what, I wonder, would both engage and be useful to an audience of 18-year-olds eager to move forward with their lives?

As I ruminate, one idea keeps coming back to me again and again: The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The more I explore it, the more fascinated I become. The Rule shows up in one form or another in nearly all religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism just to name a few—and it’s been a basis for ethical behavior for thousands of years. It’s also been a go-to principle for building agency teams that stay together over time, the glue that makes people return to work with one another again and again.

I’ve spent most of my career trying to do the right thing by clients and colleagues, and I’d like to think this focus has been a major factor in success—theirs and mine, both. To figure out what’s the right thing, there are three questions I’ve learned to ask myself when I’m faced with business decisions:

  • What would be fair here?
  • What would be humane?
  • What will help the relationship grow stronger?

I ask these questions because they’re what I hope my counterparts in a deal are asking themselves. We’d all be better off if we dealt our clients, colleagues, agencies, and business partners the way we want to be dealt with ourselves. When we think and act with long-term relationships in mind (rather than one-off transactions), I believe we all end up more profitable, not to mention less stressed-out. We might not make a selfish deal that helps us the most at another’s expense, but by acting fairly and with kindness we consistently make good deals and better relationships.

Agencies, and people in general, prosper when their mantra is something like, “I’m here to help”.

Most conflicts are at root simple misunderstandings, not malice. Some facts are simply hard to find, or fall into gray areas. Sometimes, too, what seems to be fact to one party appears as opinion or even falsehood to another. Appreciating ambiguity can lead to joint efforts to find the truth rather than witch-hunts for who’s to blame. Helpful dialogue can expand knowledge and prevent recurrences.

Some of the most bitter conflicts that bring out bad behavior seem to be about what’s fair. We’re hard-wired to seek fair deals. Studies show that even chimpanzees and small children have an innate sense of fairness and react with outrage when denied their fair share. Other studies show that people treated unfairly will seek ways to punish maltreaters even if doing so goes against their own self-interest. As an August 23, 2017 Scientific American blogpost by psychologists Katherine McAuliffe, Peter R. Black, and Felix Warneken says,

“We are now sitting on a mountain of evidence from our studies as well as those conducted by others that suggests fair behavior has deep roots in development. Infants as young as 12 months expect resources to be divided equally between two characters in a scene. By preschool, children will protest getting less than peers, even paying to prevent the peer from getting more. As children get older, they are willing to punish those who have been unfair both when they are the victims of unfairness as well as when they witness someone else being treated unfairly.” 

The implication: play nice in the sandbox if you want to keep your playmates from throwing sand in your face.

Sure, sometimes nice guys and gals get taken advantage of.  There are definitely bullies and predators out there, as well as people so hurt by previous or expected ill-will that they strike out pre-emptively. I’m not advocating that we all become yes-men; we all need to get comfortable asserting, in non-aggressive ways, our own legitimate interests. We must all advocate for, even insist on, fairness. We need to be comfortable walking away from destructive partners and one-way relationships.

But if throughout our engagements with others we keep in mind mutual desires to be treated with respect and kindness, we’ll have a better chance of becoming a trusted ally over time. That’s what I’m planning to say to those bright, hopeful young people when I talk to them in a month or so. Trust and kindness are the basis of long-standing relationships. There’s gold in those attitudes. Let’s give them a chance.

About the Author:

Wendy Balter is President of the Cadent Medical Communications agency specializing in the integration of multichannel planning, clinically driven scientific strategy and flawless execution of medical education programs.