This article is part of the series, A BOOMER’S GUIDE FOR MILLENNIALS; THE A B C’s of LEADERSHIP, I am writing for MoneyInc.
I assert that loyalty is the most precious gift that can be given and received. I also assert that loyalty is the most fragile of characteristics that are outlined in this series of articles.
A recent New York Times article by Sara Chaplin ‘Is Loyalty a Virtue’ captures the complex nature of loyalty citing “The last two years in American politics have revealed our very different senses of loyalty, from it’s purpose to its objects.” Chapman concludes, “We are seeing with unsettling clarity the limits of fidelity to a person, a faction, and agenda. And we are beginning to search for some better place to direct it.”
Loyalty is a commitment people make to support, defend and protect. Loyalty should be clear-sighted, not blind and be based on a level of trust and respect for those (a person, institution or cause) you bestow it on.
In whatever relationship, whether it beis family, friend, boss, association, employer, coworker, community, political party, country and place of worship, loyalty is an expectation or a dictate. In all too many cases, the expectation runs counter to our personal values and beliefs; yet it is still expected, and not giving it becomes tantamount to betrayal or treason.
Unfortunately when put in this situation, most have to play along with it. Not doing so could jeopardize the relationship itself, termination of employment, expulsion, or exclusion. If we think in time, not becoming a Nazi in Hitler’s Germany cost not only their lives, but also the lives of their entire families.
More than ever in our lifetime, in almost every aspect of our lives, our loyalties are being tested. We have been witnessing an unprecedented amount of wrongdoing in every segment of our society. The abnormal is becoming the norm, and the demand for blind loyalty, as when Trump made such a request of James Comey, as discussed by Jason Zuckerman in a blog for whistleblower.org, or more specifically becoming complicit, has become a constant in our lives. Consider what the people in the Weinstein Group, Wells Fargo, Uber, Fox Media, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, Volkswagen, etc, etc, etc, have been through. In all of these cases, the wrongdoings were allowed to go on for years, even decades, without challenge.
Companies that use layoffs as a first resort, when short-term results are not met display an overt lack of loyalty. It never ceases to amaze me when I ask organizational leaders what their expectations are of their employees, loyalty is in the top quartile of the list, yet when I reconcile this with their history of layoffs, I find that loyalty may not have been reciprocated. When I question leadership on this, they rationalize it by indicating employees should not expect lifetime job security. My response is, I have been around long enough to understand that, however, what employees should expect is minimizing the negative effect on employees when seeking to reduce costs, and layoffs are a last resort vs. a first.
Last quarter a major Canadian company of 200,000 employees announced the immediate termination of 500 employees to satisfy some pressure from shareholders. Yes a significant number, however minuscule relative to the total. Based on the many calls I received from existing and former employees, what was significant was the loss of loyalty from their employee base.
I assert when a company looses the loyalty of their employees, they loose significantly more in customer loyalty. A recent Mental Health America survey of 17,000 people, found that an astounding 71 percent of the respondents speak poorly about their Company to others. My experience has been that loyal employees are an organization’s best ambassadors.
Of the many cases of wrongdoing that have been exposed, most had a common element; namely, the situations were open secrets for years, and in some, like Fox Media, for decades. Were people, who were in the know, being loyal in their silence? No. Most do not put their hands up for fear of retaliation.
That fear is an understandable reality; however, it should not have to be so. There are safe ways to expose wrongdoing, which I discuss in my book, ‘From Bully to Bull’s Eye - Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire’. Is it totally risk-free? No. But when you consider that your just being a bystander may be a betrayal of loyalty to those who are suffering because of the wrongdoing.
Perhaps even more important than putting your hand up is to reach out to those who are negatively impacted by the wrongdoing, lending an ear, asking how they are doing, giving advice and letting them know you are there for them - and then being there for them.
I can speak with some authority on this. After blowing the whistle on a corrupt CEO, I was subject to being retaliated against and suffered, over eighteen months, the most extreme forms of bullying, including receiving a death threat. Ironically, the reason I took this action was out of loyalty to the organization and the board of directors, many of who I was instrumental in placing. The board could not muster the courage to even conduct an investigation. I was taught that loyalty is a two-way street. Eventually, I was proven right, and the CEO was forced out.
There is no question that I felt betrayed. But what hurt me more was the lack of support I received from so many I believed were loyal to me. Combined with the trauma of being retaliated against, the betrayal of so many caused me to have symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - PTSD. I was laid up for six months with a serious case of shingles; and I became a bitter person, totally immersed in negativity.
While there were many who abandoned me, a few did recognize the huge change in me and forced interventions, which I have come to recognize as the truest form of loyalty. They told me what I needed to hear, and they gave me ‘tough love’, which gave me a much needed awakening, which started a journey on reversing the negative energy into positive, focusing on helping organizations create psychologically safe, healthy, fair and productive workplaces. To those brave few, I will never forget your loyalty, and how you helped me to better understand and forgive the many others who betrayed me. These few also strengthened my courage to give the ‘tough love’ to those who are in need of it.
Since the event, I have reached out to many of the many who betrayed, to discuss what happened, in an open, honest and direct way. They needed to hear from me how disappointed I was, and I needed to better understand from them the barriers to their becoming defenders, protectors and resistors. The one thing that really resonated was my question, if the situation was reversed, what would they have expected from me? To a person, they all would have expected my support, and believed that they would have gotten it. Also to a person, they all felt ashamed for not being true to the basic ethic of reciprocity.
As a leader, to have earned the trust and respect of the people you are responsible for, and then being given that gift of loyalty should be considered your greatest achievement. You must also consider, to keep it is your greatest challenge.
Andrew Faas is a Public Voices Fellow at Yale University and the author of From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Moving Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire.