Team Management

Goodbye, Golden Rule. Hello, Rubber Band Rule!

Navigating how to show up respectfully in the workplace can be challenging. We break down these complicated dynamics and discuss tips for finding success.

Julie Pham, Ph.D. is a writer, scholar, and the CEO of CuriosityBased, which fosters curiosity in the world, starting in the workplace. She is an award-winning leader who applies her community-building experience to strengthening teams.


View the full episode here.


Julie Pham 00:00
When the communication or miscommunication comes up, you still have that trust to fall back on and go like, Oh, well, I don't think you meant that. So let's- let's- let's keep talking.

Lee Ngo 00:13
Hello, everyone and welcome to Educative Sessions, a podcast series with people in the developer world about their coding experiences. This is brought to you by Educative, which makes it easy for authors to provide interactive and adaptive courses for software developers. My name is Lee Ngo and I am the host of Educative Sessions. Today, my guest is Dr. Julie Pham, who is going to title her discussion with me as "Goodbye Golden Rule, Hello, Rubber Rule." Julie, welcome to the show.

Julie Pham 00:42
Hi, thank you, Lee, for inviting me.

Lee Ngo 00:44
Absolutely. Very excited to talk to you. Let's start with your- you've such an interesting background and a background that certainly resonates strongly with my own. But you know, there's so many details that will, I'm going to have to ask you, how can we go as quickly as you can to talk, starting with your academic background, and then going on from there.

Julie Pham 01:04
So I am trained as a historian, in modern, modern Southeast Asian intellectual history, and, and so I ended up getting my PhD in that, and I spent most of my 20s, doing that work. And then when I, just before I turned 30, I decided, "hey, I don't want to stay in academia anymore." I looked inside, I was like, I don't want to do this. And so then my family that were based in Seattle, and they have a Vietnamese language newspaper. And they asked me to come back to- to Seattle to help run it. And I was living in Vietnam at the time. And I decided to get my real life MBA by running a Vietnamese language newspaper, in- starting in 2008. So, starting at the- the big recession, and also the decline of the print industry. And then, so I ran the newspaper for three years, and got my real life MBA by learning how to sell, how to build partnerships. And after working with eight people, half of whom have the same last name as me, I decided I needed to move on to a bigger organization. And I managed to network my way into Microsoft, and then into another tech company. And then I was at Washington Technology Industry Association for six years heading community engagement. And now I have my own company.

Lee Ngo 02:20
That was even more efficient than I thought it was going to be. But the same time, what would you identify- I mean, you were a historian to, you know, managing a newspaper or- to working at companies like Microsoft and WTA, and now, an entrepreneur again. Like, do you see a common thread amongst all or a lot of the work that you've done over the years?

Julie Pham 02:42
You know, I thought in the beginning, that it was to be a storyteller. And I realized now it's actually to be a dot connector. And what I really enjoy is actually bringing together people from different backgrounds to collaborate. And so in my, so even when I was at the newspaper, one of the ways that I learned how to do business was actually by- by working with different ethnic media in different communities. And what I said was like, "Oh, you're struggling, I'm struggling, how do we work together?" And all of these, all these nonprofits and private businesses and government agencies, they want to reach out to our communities. And how can we work with them so that there can be a win win? And so it wasn't just about telling the stories of the community actually that excited me. It was about figuring out what- how do we create those win win wins in working together, and even when we don't have a lot of resources, we can still have great impact.

Lee Ngo 03:46
That's really interesting. Yeah, I think, I mean, a lot of people, I think, take that- I mean, it sounds like a lot of strategy, ultimately, that goes into it all, and being able to coordinate things sort of, according to a lot of the variables that exist. These are skill sets that people take for advantage. They think, like, you know, those are often made easily. But I find that those who think very strategically and very much in a collaborative way, do find deals that not only are made, but they actually are lasting deals and ones that think about the like, larger picture of things. And so, you know, I'm particularly interested in your transition from not just academia to technology, but also, you know, questions about culture that exists in both, you know, I was an ex academic, and also, you know, working for Educative and other companies that dwell in technology and they're spaces that require a lot of intellectualism. But I'd say there's, there's nuances within both, would you agree with that?

Julie Pham 04:43
Yes. And, you know, I think at the core before we can get to strategy, there has to be relationship building and there has to be communication. There also has to be self awareness. And so what I learned when I was at the- when I was at the newspaper and doing all that partnership building and also doing lots of community building was to really just talk to people and understand, "hey, what do you need, hey, this is what I need." And just like, "huh, later on, we'll- maybe we'll get to do something together, maybe we won't." And to that, and what I also saw was, people communicate in different ways to. And so I mean, even when I was an academic, I got to live- I got to live in the study in the UK, and France, Germany, and in Vietnam. A lot of that actually informs my work. Because what I realized was, wow, people have different ways of communicating. And, and so and then coming back to Seattle, and working with the Spanish newspapers, Chinese, Filipino, the Russian, it's like, "Oh, we still have different ways of communicating." And then, when I was at- when I was at Washington, Fatale, Technology Industry Association, even seeing, "oh, there are different languages spoken in the different sectors." And you just people just, it's- it's how do you simultaneously build trust so that when those- when the communication or miscommunication comes up, you still have that trust to fall back on and go like, "Oh, well, I don't think you meant that. So, let's- let's- let's keep talking." Yeah.

Lee Ngo 06:14
Well, I'm in a sense, you're speaking not just my language, but like, to my own academic interests. I don't know, if we've- I mentioned I used to study, or was ambitiously wanting to be an anthropologist back in the day, and largely was confused at first, like, "why am I so compelled to this," and now, even in my own work, now, I see it all the time. And I see it to be completely both translatable, and if not imperative when it comes to these kinds of things. And that's one area of technology that I think, can always use more attention and more effort is to understand things from that lens, and see how- why- how much more productivity and collaboration can exist when you do so that through that. So, that leads me to like, the core concept that you're interested in now, which is the concept of respect, of course. You know, respect is very different. Certainly, not just in from academia to technology, but also from culture to culture. I have a decent sense of respect, even for you and I, who have similar cultures, although I admit, I can improve upon the big sisterly pronouns here, I'll concede there, but, you know, let's, uh, how did you become particularly interested in this topic? Like, why is respect suddenly what surfaced to the forefront considering everything that you've seen and experienced in your work?

Julie Pham 07:37
So, when I was at the newspaper, I started doing a lot of community building. And so that was also in the volunteer work that I did. And so again, lots of different groups of people. And I would- I would see, just simple misunderstandings pop up. And also, I would experience it too. I would have people misunderstand me and I would misunderstand other people. And I was just like, "what is- what's going on here?" And so and I remember very clearly actually seeing this engineer and this labor organizer, and they just could not understand one another. And the engineer kept saying- kept asking really deep, probing questions. And the labor organizer is just like, "why don't you trust me? Are you asking me all these questions?" And the engineers just like, "I'm really interested, I want to know, I want to understand," and the labor organizers "like, no, I got this," you know, and so that- that's what made me start to think like, "Huh, what is it." Because we often talk about values and, and "oh, we just don't have shared values." I actually think we, we often do have shared values, we just have different approaches, different languages to talk about our approaches. And so- so that- those were kind of the sparks of just kind of seeing that constantly in the in the community building work, because no matter what, we had to address it for us to move forward. And- and then I started asking this question, "well, how do you want to be treated? How do you want to be treated in- at work?" And then people kept saying- using the word "respect." And then I started asking, "What do you mean by respect?" And then they just had different ways of describing respect. And it got me thinking about how we use this word respect and yet, there's so many different ways of explaining what respect looks like, and what it feels like. And so I often hear this, "oh, I want you to respect me" and the other person says, "but I am respecting you." It's like, "No, you're not." "Yes, I am." And really, what's happening here is they just have different ideas for respect means. And so that's- that's what got me really interested in this work is just like, "oh, how do we actually- how do we help people clarify and communicate clearly what we mean by respecting that there could be different forms respect?"

Lee Ngo 09:51
All right. Which is a wonderful segue into my next question is, you know, let's talk about those different forms. And right now my mind is- is churning because I can think of different ways in which I practice respect and want to receive respect. And the biggest question is context too, right. Like, there's so many contexts where something is totally appropriate, if not solicited from some other person. And there are other times when, least from me, I would actually, "I believe you should use my full, like, you know, royal title or whatever." But I would- I would love to make one up if that were the case. And sometimes I wonder about myself, like when they see me in different- especially, I think the greatest challenge has been traveling through these different domains, and how they start to morph in and out. So, please, would love to, you know, elaborate more about- about these different forms that you're discussing?

Julie Pham 10:45
Yeah. So actually, let me- let me elaborate a bit on the title of this talk, right? So, when I ask people, "Hey, what is respect mean? And I'd often hear "oh, well, the golden rule: treat people the way that you want to be treated." And then it's like, well, "wait a minute, what if people don't want to be treated the way that you want to be treated?" And then there's the platinum rule, which is "treat people the way they want to be treated?" Well, the issue there is, what if, what if they don't tell you how they want to be treated? And what if they don't even know, they haven't even actually thought about how they want to be treated? And so what often happens is people try to mirror back what they get. So, for example- so, for example, Lee, you may give me all this unsolicited constructive feedback. And I'm like, "Oh, he likes that." "So, Lee, let me tell you how it is." And then you get all "arghghr".

Lee Ngo 11:34
That sounds like an accurate representation of my personality.

Julie Pham 11:39
Right. And so that's why- that's why I say, actually, the rubber rule. And the rubber rule is that "respect is flexible. Respect is relative. It's- it's contradictory. And it's subjective." So, rather than saying "it's golden," or "it's platinum," which means just kind of hard and set, it's actually- it's actually quite flexible. And so what you were describing, the times where you feel like, oh, "I want this, why is it that I didn't want it from that person?" And so with the forms of respect framework, it actually helps people understand and name the dynamics of like, "oh, this is what I want right now." And, and so yeah, that's, that's how we think about it's just, it's relative.

Lee Ngo 12:24
Yeah. Which I think I mean, it's- that's helpful. But I want to challenge this a little bit if that's okay. Because I actually only recently learned about the platinum rule. And I liked it, because it forces people to be very like, almost insists upon empathy in that moment. It's like, don't think about what's important for yourself in your interaction with someone else, think about what's important to them. And I in that context, always presumed "well, that really, regardless of what even if their mood changes, or what have you, or my status with them changes, that rule would still apply." Like it really makes us be mindful of other people. Is there a distinction between what I'm framing I'll use my own understanding of the platinum and platinum rule as versus a rubber rule, which makes things very relativistic, which is fine. But I do often start to really push on like, "well, if- if things become really relavtivistic, do- what kind of work do we have to do in every single interaction and relationship? As going to have to be, before we even talk about the thing that we need to talk about, let's talk about that thing. Sorry, if I'm, and that's not meant to mock it's- it's- it's a sincere inquiry into, "okay, therefore, what the labor of establishing respect is moving forward?"

Julie Pham 13:39
Well, I'm going to take a step back and tell you why I studied history. And what I love about the discipline of history is that it sits at the intersection of social science and humanities. And in social science, you- people are pursuing truth, because they believe there is such a thing as truth. And in humanities, everything is a story. And there is no such thing as truth. And history sits right at that intersection. It's right- it has that tension, right? And that- and that's actually what drives a lot of my work. It's like I'm pursuing something as if there could be a truth. And yet I kind of know that it's all relative. And so, it's actually to really mean the nuance in that. And so like with the platinum rule, I mean, I think that there are lots of great things about the platinum rule. I also think that there's a lot of great things about the- the- about the golden rule. I just think that the rubber rule allows us to have maximum flexibility, right? Because sometimes it just like, "well, like, they told me that they wanted that thing, or I heard from someone else that they like to be treated this way. And I did that. But I don't understand why they're not talking to me anymore." Right? And so- and so- and I also think, like what I what I said about the platinum rule is oftentimes people don't even know how they want to be treated. And because there's this- what we saw on the research, sometimes people feel hypocritical to want something from- from one person and want a different thing from another person. And so with the seven forms of respect, we think about respect being three dimensions. And the first dimension is hierarchy. And hierarchy is very present, it's especially very present in the workplace, there are people who have more power than you, equal power than you, and less power than you. And so we may not like it. That's just "like, oh, I have different expectations from how I want to be treated by my boss, versus how we want to be treated from my peer, versus how I want to be treated to- by someone who reports to me." The reality is, it's there. And it's- it actually helps us prioritize things. So, that's so looking at respect through those different dimensions can actually- is the the purpose of the framework is to help us explain like, "Oh, this is what's happening." The second dimension is the way people like to give respect versus the way they like to get respect. So that goes back to, "the way I want to be treated, might not be the way I want to treat someone." So, for example, we see a lot of people are like, "I love to surprise people. I don't want to be surprised." Right?

Lee Ngo 16:12
Right, right.

Julie Pham 16:13
And it's typically because it's like, you probably think that you're really good at surprising people, but people aren't good at surprising you. So, in any case, and then the third aspect of it is- the third dimension is what really matters to you, not what should matter, which is how we often think about respect of this, these are all the things that we should do, the way we should treat each other. And to actually get people to think about "what matters to me so much, I will do it no matter what, even if the other person doesn't care, I will tell someone I'm running late, even if I know that they're always running late, because it's not about them. It's actually about me." And so- so, in any case, with the the rubber rule, there's a lot of flexibility. And we just try to give people a framework to understand, "oh, this is- this is what's happening." And there's also- there's what's happening as an individual. And there's also what's happening on a team, and also what's happening at the organizational level. Because what we've also seen is that teams can have certain forms of respect. Oftentimes, it's determined by the leader, but not always. And then organizations, whole companies can have forms of respect. I mean, I remember when I was at Microsoft, I was like, "Whoa," and I didn't have this, I didn't have this framework back then. But if I did, I'd be like, "oh, there's a lot of candor here." To the point where people can seem like they're being jerk- jerks. There's a lot of information, everyone gets CCD on all the emails, right. And so there's just certain forms that happen, the expectation at a company wide level, and then also on certain teams. So, for example, marketing and finance can have different forms of respect. And then individuals within that team can have different forms of preferences for their forms and respect. I think I, the analogy I like to use is there's the national language for the company. And then there are regional dialects for the different teams.

Lee Ngo 18:08
Gosh. Again, you know, I don't know whether this is how you speak about your work in general, if it's specific to me, and you know, that I have an anthropological mindset, like, sure. That's absolutely how these things often play out in in, like, the diversity within organizations, especially as they grow. The one thing you mentioned that was particularly interesting for me is that- that's called a space of ideology for people who actually aren't sure of how to assert what they want, because either they aren't confident in it, or they don't know. And- and what does that mean, for people who even might be practicing something, but they actually might have sort of an alienated or confused relationship with that decision? What kind of, like, I guess design of space should exist in order to allow people to figure that out? Because, yeah, I mean, I would certainly say my own experiences- where I was, in my early days, getting into the workforce to where I am now and the kind of, like, not only respect that I always wish I had, but also will certainly insist upon now, has changed through experience, has also has changed through the kinds of spaces that I'm in. So, I guess my question is, uh, you know, designing the kinds of engagements, right, I think that's the big question I have for you is, looks like, you know, we are outlining the kinds of respect that exists, but how to achieve it in such a, like, su- and what we're describing is a really complex environment. What are the steps to make that possible?

Julie Pham 19:44
So, first, I just want to- what you were talking about early on in your career, one of the things that we noticed is people who early on their career, they tell us that they never really thought about getting respect, they only think about giving it. And then what we see with people who are more senior in their career is like, "how am I going to get respect?" And they may or may not be focused on how they give it or thinking about that as much. So, in terms of the team dynamics, I think of this as energy, the energy we feel when we give certain kinds of respect that maybe are not our preferences. And so think about introverts and extroverts. So, an introvert can still be with other people, and still actually have a good time. But, that's just not where they get their energy. And extroverts can be by themselves, it's just not where they get their energy. And they can do both, right. And so there are going to be times where it's like, I see on my team, that there is a lot of acknowledgment, for example, everyone's like high fiving each other and giving each other lots of praise. And maybe that's not my form of respect. But I want to see it on the team. And I'll do that it's a- it's a- I can- I can do that. And so, but it's- it's not going to be the thing that gives me energy, but I can still do it. And it doesn't make me feel bad, it's just like, we're kind of ambivalent to it. So, I think that some of the questions that in terms of designing the team dynamic, it's asking, "what are the forms of respect that are actually necessary for us to support the goals of this team?" Versus, because I think what happens a lot of times, is people try to be perfect. Now, like, "I need to be respectful in all these ways," a huge misconception, Lee, that I have to always explain to people is some forms of respect is not about being respectful in all seven ways. It's actually about determining, "hey, which are the ones that matter to me, and which are the ones that don't matter to me?" "Which were the ones that matter to the team and which are the ones that don't matter to the team?" And then figuring out well, where do we actually allocate our energy? And then and also asking the individual team members, is this going to be okay for you long term, or not? Because you know, when we talked about culture fit. And it's really hard, people are like, "Well, how do you describe culture fit?" I think a culture is like, "what do people do, it's not what they say they do, it's actually how they behave with one another." So- so, an example is, if you think about emergency room, in an emergency room, they're not going to care about punctuality, they're going to care- they're not going to care about who came first, they're going to care about who needs the most care. Right. And so maybe individuals I like- I like punctuality, but on the purpose of this- of this work, and of our team work together, is actually to serve urgent care patients. And so punctuality is not going to be a form of respect that we practice. And that's okay.

Lee Ngo 22:33
What I'm hearing, and please correct me if I'm wrong, it sounds like it is contingent, but establishing those contingencies. First, as in- and there's something I think, because I think about, like, I was listening to a podcast with some celebrities. And the couple was apparently like, completely like night and day as to like who they were. But they made it work, because one of the partners said, "we were really big on shared goals, like we almost have always have to have a shared goal among us. And as long as everything points to that true north, there you go," right. And it sounds like there's that same kind of thing here. Like, you know, a version of respect that might exist, say in the tech world is going to be probably very different from something that might exist in a church or, you know, I'm into pro wrestling for some weird reason, very different form of respect that happens there, or maybe not, I don't know. But what it seems like is, what you're offering is once that that is established, then to go through as if like to sort through a toolkit of sorts, and to find the tool that is going to work best for establishing and building that foundation that you need. Well, that's a nice metaphor, when applied myself for that. Cool. So my last question for you is to, you know, for people who do engage with this great work that has covered a lot of your fantastic experiences over the last several years, what are like the biggest takeaways that you hope that that they have from them? Like what is at least a couple of lessons for- from those works?

Julie Pham 24:03
It is not about saying, "Oh, the what are your forms are respect, and these are mine." And we always, it's not like a MBTI or something like that, right? This is- just- it's not fixed. Right? It's actually, it's just, I think of it as the spark for conversation, because I want to know, "why?" I'm going to remember your stories. And you'll remember my stories. And so- and so and that goes back to the relationship building piece, and it goes back to the communication piece. This is really- it's ultimately about communicating with each other more clearly. And also saying, "This is what I need. And this is why. Can that work?" And maybe the other person says, "I'm glad know, no it can't, not in this environment, not because of these conditions," but at least it gets people to start talking versus just feeling like, "Oh, I'm just being disrespected here because of," and then we fill in the blank for that person. Right. So I think the takeaways are it's about it's ultimately about self awareness. It's about communication and it's about relationship building. Because if you have a great relationship with someone they could treat you in ways that you think are really disrespectful if they came from someone else. But there's like, oh, okay, how likely? It's not a big deal?

Lee Ngo 25:08
Well, speaking personally, I'm like, I would say, of all the areas actually, I care less about whether people like me as much as whether we have a mutual sense of respect. That's something that has come in recent years. Largely, because I mean, there's so much that is a contingent to that stuff. But there's so much when it comes to our mutual well being that draws from respect. And- and- and I think that's a big, big reason why I wanted to have this longer conversation with you about it, because it's such a critical topic that seems so granted, I'd say in most all of our conceptions of it, but it's really a lot of work that's established over years of formalities and understandings and misunderstandings as well. Right. Julia, want to give you an opportunity to do an official shameless plug to talk, really, about whatever you seem to want to advance at the moment, the floor is yours.

Julie Pham 26:05
Oh, thank you. Well, my book is coming out soon. So, I've got this book "Seven Forms of Respect: A Guide to Transforming Communications and Relationship- relationships at Work." And it should come out in March, and so my shameless plug is to, when it does come out, to order it. You can also find out more about it on

Lee Ngo 26:27
Wonderful, right. Dr. Julie Pham. You know, you've been a wonderful friend over the years and wonderful mentor. And just like, I appreciate you so much, not just for, you know, coming on the show, but just being such a wonderful name to drop, I'm just gonna put it that way. And I do that with the highest of respects just to b toy- know you by association is absolutely an honor. So, thank you so much for being on our show.

Julie Pham 26:52
Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm super honored.

Lee Ngo 26:55
Absolutely. And I want to thank everyone else for either watching this on YouTube or watching this on our major podcasting platforms. You can check out more of our episodes there as well. And last but not least, if you're interested in what we do at Educative you can check us out So, for all of us at Educative, thank you so much and happy learning. Bye bye now. Hi there. Hope you enjoyed this Educative Session. Be sure to check out more on YouTube or on any podcasting app and be sure to like this episode and don't forget to subscribe to our channel. Happy Learning.

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