“Treat everybody else as if they were you.” These words gave me pause. I wonder what it would be like if we each did what this “unknown author” is advocating?

Would she still have abandoned her station at the airport fast food restaurant to get a fork and share a pastry with her friend while her customers waited if she followed this adage? Would he still have sat by the window of the plane with his feet on the seat and knees in my husband\’s space? And would he have cut off the driver in back of him causing her to miss her exit in urban rush hour? Probably not.

So in a common courtesy, service orientation context, this approach makes sense. But applying it to the workplace doesn\’t. In fact, it\’s this kind of thinking at work that creates missteps and disconnects as three or more generations try to work effectively together. When we assume to know what others desire from their work, about their work, or around their work, we\’re entering de-motivating quicksand.

When managers fail to discover the right reward, the interesting work, or the appropriate recognition for their staff, they end up with programs designed for what they might like, with unintended consequences. It\’s like buying someone a gift that you want yourself, but they have no interest in.

You see, if I\’m your employee, maybe I\’d rather have the choice to leave early on a Friday with pay as a recognition of my project efforts, instead of that gift card to a coffee icon which you think I\’d enjoy. While flexibility might be the best reward you can give me depending on my non-work obligations, my commuting cubicle neighbor might be thrilled with the prepaid gas card.

When we presume people at work want what we want, we make assumption-mistakes. I may want to climb the company hierarchy, but you may want greater balance, so the promotion I think you\’re after may not be one you desire. One size does not fit all, let alone most, in the workplaces of today. That\’s old-thinking. And managers who apply one-size thinking in this era of personal choice shouldn\’t be surprised when their well-intentioned efforts fall short of reinforcing desired outcomes, or when the people they thought they were rewarding are disappointed.

While work is not a democracy, nor should it be, creating an environment where everyone can offer their best work and be appreciated is key to any winning team, work group, or business endeavor where ideas and discretionary efforts of engaged employees create the competitive edge.

But it goes deeper than that. If your workplace culture includes roaming dogs, don\’t hire people who are distracted by them, allergic to them, or dislike them. If your culture is policy and hierarchical bound, don\’t be surprised if that maverick thinker you recruited from a top school is writing her resume because she wants to be included in decision making.

You can\’t possibility meet or exceed a top performer\’s expectations unless you know what they are. You can\’t surprise and delight him with exciting work or incentives if you don\’t know what he values. And you can\’t provide meaningful recognition if you don\’t understand she doesn\’t like to be singled out in public.

People who are winning at working ask, discover, engage, and find out about the people they work with, for, and around. They don\’t make assumptions about what motivates others, they find out. And they don\’t extrapolate that discovery across a generation or a gender or a role.

In this era of individual choice, people who are winning at working apply a different guiding axiom: “Treat everyone as the unique person they are.” Yes, it is true that this approach makes managing more complicated, more difficult, and more time consuming. It means options and choices and menu driven approaches. It means one-size-fits-all thinking is over. But it also means exceptional results and winning performance.

(c) 2008 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved.

Author of Hitting Your Stride: Your Work, Your Way (Capital Books; January 2008). Host of “Work Matters with Nan Russell” weekly on webtalkradio.net. Nan Russell has spent over twenty years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. Sign up to receive Nan\’s “Winning at Working” tips and insights at www.nanrussell.com

Nan Russell has spent over twenty years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. She has held leadership positions in Human Resource Development, Communication, Marketing and line Management. Nan has a B.A. from Stanford University and M.A. from the University of Michigan. Currently working on her first book, Winning at Working: 10 Lessons Shared, Nan is a writer, columnist, and speaker. Her career insights column, Winning at Working (www.winningatworking.com ) regularly appears on over eighty websites; and her life-reflections column, In the Scheme of Things (www.intheschemeofthings.com) is published in six states and Canada. Her work has been selected to appear in several anthologies. To sign up for Nan's free eColumn(s), or read more about Nan or her work, visit: www.nanrussell.com.