My bad back hadn’t flared up in months, so when my colleagues started up a beach volleyball game at the company outing, I couldn’t resist because I love playing volleyball.

But after a few rounds, my lower back started to ache. And then as I lunged to reach the ball, the sand slipped beneath my foot and I felt a twinge in my back.

My colleague Bill came over later and offered to help because he also had a back problem, and there was one surefire way that helped him feel better. I trusted Bill and so I did as he suggested.

He had us stand back to back and link arms. Then, without warning, he rocked forward and back suddenly three times in a rapid-fire jerking motion. But when he bent forward, that arched my back and flipped my legs off the ground.

By the time I could shout “STOP!”, the damage had been done and Bill’s surefire method had made things worse.

While Bill’s intentions were good – he wanted to help a colleague in need by sharing something that worked for him in a similar situation – the result for me was not so good.

Just as the “Golden Rule” of “doing unto others as you would have done to you” was a mistake for Bill and me, treating your team members as you want to be treated is a mistake for leaders.

Why the best leaders don’t follow the Golden Rule

Treating people the way you want to be treated is risky.

That’s because everyone has their own situation and no one is exactly like you. The things that you take for granted, like feeling secure in your job or having a support system at home, may be the very things your team members find challenging.

So things that sound supportive to you may come across as completely off base or out of touch to your listener. And when you innocently gloss over everyday struggles, your behavior and messaging could be completely off base leaving you sounding “tone deaf” and out of touch.

Instead, truly great leaders treat people the way they want to be treated

To do that, you need to get out of your own head and learn about what’s in theirs. Here are three ways to gain the insights you’ll need to be successful:

  • Observation
  • Conversation
  • Reverse mentoring

Let’s start with the first way.

Observe what people say and do

Their behavior can give you valuable clues as to what they care about and how they think and what would land well with them. It’s the simplest, least invasive way to figure out how someone wants to be treated.

For example, if your team member tends to say very little in meetings but tends to lead with logic when they do speak, they’re probably not going to respond well to being shouted at or called on in front of a large group. Instead, you’ll probably get more from them one-on-one and by encouraging rather than challenging them.

So in your next meeting, see what you learn by noticing how others conduct themselves. What tendencies do you observe and what clues might that give you about how they would like to be treated?

If you’ve done some observing and still aren’t sure, this next method will help.

When in doubt, have the conversation

There’s nothing like talking to people to confirm your instincts. In fact, making assumptions without testing them can easily get you in trouble.

Like assuming a team member isn’t ambitious just because she’s not lobbying for a promotion every week. Or assuming that your quiet team member has a confidence issue when it could be a cultural norm that junior people defer to their bosses.

So before you make decisions or any big moves based on assumptions, take a moment to talk to your team members. What are their aspirations? What’s inspiring them versus frustrating them? What support do they need from you to achieve their goals?

Listen to what they say. Ask follow-up questions to get beyond the surface. Talk to your team members regularly and get to know them as people.

And remember, the worst conversation is usually the one you didn’t have.

Which brings us to the third step.

Engage a “reverse mentor” to help

As someone who was used to mentoring team members, it felt funny to ask a team member to mentor me. But that “reverse mentoring” is exactly what helped me avoid sounding out of touch when I arrived in the London office from New York.

There were two team members who I could turn to for advice on how to word my emails before sending them to UK clients – it turns out that Americans don’t speak the same English as the British do, and I didn’t want to accidentally offend or cause confusion.

And another team member helped me stay on top of what was going on at the junior level so I could be “in the know” and lead the team well.

So consider making your mentoring relationships truly two-way. It’s a great way to create a feedback loop so you can be an even better leader.

All it takes is a few trusted team members who can help you “get” what your team is going through, save you from making mistakes in communicating and help identify ways to correct the mistakes you do make.

But what if your team is still working from home?

When you’re not physically in the same place, it can be more challenging to observe, converse and reverse mentor. But being virtual makes it even more essential to ensure that your words, actions and presence as a leader are landing in the best possible way.

And yes, you can still use your powers of observation, have conversations and engage with your reverse mentors when you’re on video calls.

Just don’t make the mistake of letting inhibitions get in the way

Whether you’re an introvert, a “too busy” boss or simply fearful of what you might find, don’t let these reasons stop you from reaching out.

Not only will you be a better leader for your team, you’ll have learned a life skill that will help you in the rest of your life too.

This is the time when people have the greatest need for positive connection. As a leader, this is your opportunity and responsibility to do everything you can to support your team members and invest in understanding them as people.

As you reach out, nurture your relationships, and treat people the way they want to be treated, you can gain the insights you’ll need through:

  • Observation: look for cues from the words and behaviors of your team members
  • Conversation: talk to people so you can test your assumptions and learn about their “care and feeding” directly
  • Reverse mentoring: engage a few trusted team members and create a feedback loop to guide your actions

Not only will this save you time and headaches later, your team will be more motivated and your reputation as a leader will rise… and your career opportunities along with it.

Which method will most help you treat people the way they want to be treated?

Leave a comment and let me know.