The Illusive Nature of Loyalty

As anyone who has ever read anything I have written or had to sit through one of my trainings or presentations knows I am an advocate of employee engagement or commitment over compliance.

The concept of loyalty is one of my personal pillars of an engaged relationship, but I think I might just define it differently from the traditional sense.

Under the old compliance model; the relationship between employer and employed had elements of what many would call loyalty.

We used to see employees work for a single employer for years, perhaps even decades. The idea was that if an employee did a good job they could expect a degree of job security that would take them through retirement.

Maybe it is just me, but that good seemed to include a healthy dose of obedience. It was also amusing or perhaps more ironic that most employers who did not have unionized workforces saw employment at will as almost a sacred principle. When I say ironic it is because while employers valued this construct they struggled with the idea that the concept of employment at will is entirely based on equal balance.

Yes, the employer can terminate any employee for any legal reason without notice or reason, but the employee retains the right to terminate the relationship without notice or punishment as well.

Over my multiple decades as an HR practitioner I spent countless hours explaining and arguing with employers that they couldn’t preserve their at will rights and then punish employees who correctly interpreted the concept and acted on it.

As we globalized the concept of mutual loyalty got significantly diluted. In the sixties, seventies, and eighties you saw right-sizing, outsourcing, and a number of other approaches to reduce costs by decreasing the workforce. I personally believe this is when the concept of human capital really took root. We de-personalized people and started looking at them as an item on the balance sheet.

The Millennial and Gen X generations grew up during this period. That is part why they view the employment relationship with such cynicism.

I grew up essentially in the Southwest, so I saw a different construct of loyalty. The Southwest is the birthplace of the cowboy. Being a cowboy was just a job, it was a philosophy. It was not uncommon for cowboys to travel from ranch to ranch offering their services as required.

We have an expression called riding for the brand. Very loosely interpreted it meant that while I lived in your bunkhouse, ate your food and rode your horses you had my loyalty and could reasonably expect me to give you my best efforts. It was a temporary and transitional relationship that had a degree of independence for both parties. There was mutual trust and respect on the part of both parties.

I smile when I hear employers lament the loss of loyalty. These are often the same organizations that during the recent recession adjusted wages, reduced workforces and told remaining employees they should expect or request salary increases, but rather should be grateful to be employed.

And then the economy began improving….

The most current discussion of loyalty is with our current President. It seems he expects, or rather demands personal loyalty above all else. We heard that when his tumultuous relationship with Director Comey was disclosed and even more recently with his chief of staff.

It seems Mr. Trump doesn’t define loyalty in the traditional sense, but rather more in the old definition of absolute personal fealty.

It is also interesting to me that he is as transactional in his own personal loyalty as the CEO’s I hear complain about disloyal employees.

I have personally chosen to define loyalty more in line with my cowboy roots…

First, loyalty is based on the mutual trust explained by Stephen MR Covey in his book, The Speed of Trust, at that illusive third level; identity based trust based on shared values and experiences. That is the kind of trust that you hear described by members of a military unit that has served together or even an athletic team. It is earned and it is reciprocated.

Second, that reciprocity is foundational. Both parties see inherent value. We don’t measure loyalty in terms of tenure, we measure it in terms of contribution.

Just because someone has been with my organization for a long time doesn’t mean they are loyal. Recent studies indicated that close to twenty percent of the U.S. workforce is actively disengaged, that means they come to work every day and do as little as possible and in fact actively disrupt or sabotage the workplace. The scary thing is these employees or no more likely to leave than employees who are neutral. They quit and stay.

Third, loyalty can be transitional. You never arrive. Like engagement it is something you actively work at every day and you never take it for granted.

So, I would suggest that before we require or expect loyalty we do the work of earning our stakeholders trust and respect and that we cultivate and nurture it.

I think that Mr. Trump like many CEOs I have known is living in a fantasy world. You don’t demand loyalty or respect you earn them and part of that process is that it is reciprocal and based on shared values.

We also gave up the monarchy in the 18th century, loyalty should be to the values and principle embodied in the Constitution not to a person, but rather to the office.

Maybe I am too literal, but it works for me…


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