Monday, May 21, 2020

Loyalty and a culture of fear

One of the reasons that many people agree to long hours and extra pressure is a sense of loyalty: to the company, to the boss, to colleagues. Yet is such loyalty always admirable, or even useful? Are there times when being loyal is actually wrong?

Is loyalty to the boss and the company always admirable? Loyalty has long been prized by leaders; to be disloyal is typically seen as an obviously negative trait. Yet too much emphasis on loyalty can stifle dissent, dulling people’s willingness to tell the truth and use their creativity. If no one is willing to rock the boat by pointing out problems or faults, or suggesting new ideas, how many opportunities, mistakes or instances of questionable practice will be missed? When does loyalty become misplaced? Ought loyalty to be prized more than curiosity and independent thought? Curiosity is uncomfortable. Skeptics make you mad when they challenge what you’ve come to believe and automatically rely on; especially in areas that you don’t want looked at too closely.

In my career, I’ve experienced times when disloyalty was disruptive and killed any sense of trust. But I’ve also seen cases where too much unquestioning loyalty meant important issues were ignored or suppressed until it was too late. It’s made me wonder if open questioning of authority, short of defiance, may be essential if we’re not to lose our way. After all, the United States was created by people ready to fight my English ancestors for the right to live free from unquestioning loyalty to a sovereign.

Principles of a civilized working life

Socrates, one of the world’s most revered philosophers, described himself as a “divine gadfly” sent to stir up his fellow citizens and shake them out of their complacency. They valued his efforts so much they had him executed for “corrupting the young” by teaching them to think for themselves. He was just the first of the many martyrs for the three principles that perhaps best express a civilized life, at work or anywhere else: freedom, reason, and respect for others.

The more authoritarian and dogmatic the leader, the more they prize loyalty in their followers. Dictators—political and organizational—crush freedom and surround themselves with “yes-men,” eager to prove their loyalty by saying whatever the person in power will find most acceptable. The pressure to fit in and suppress unpleasant realities can be overwhelming. That loyalty stifles creativity and discourages people’s willingness to speak the truth about their leaders, themselves, or their work. Competitors ought to cherish excessively loyal organizations, where no one is ready to rock the boat by pointing out how fast they’re becoming obsolete.

The use of reason to find solutions to problems demands that people are free to speak their minds and question anything that doesn’t seem right to them. Excessive loyalty puts all the emphasis on an irrational belief in the wisdom of leaders and the correctness of organizational decisions. You don’t have to look far to find leaders who are not wise and organizations whose decisions were far from correct. Reasoning demands questioning and makes no assumption that those above you in the hierarchy always got there by merit or intelligence.

Surely respect for others should extend to respect for their opinions, concerns, and anxieties? To be respectful means to listen with an open mind and a tolerant outlook. You won’t find Hamburger Managers with either. That’s why they make such poor listeners. They think they already know everything useful, and they have no respect for anyone who cannot directly advance their prospects. Of course they demand loyalty, even though they give none to others.

Getting the balance right

Getting the right balance between loyalty and initiative isn’t simple. Loyalty is good for comfort and support, but bad for promoting initiative and truth-telling. Organizations need people who support one another. They also need those ready to see with different—even “disloyal”—eyes and bring uncomfortable realities into the open. Without them, everyone gets fat, dumb and happy—until the dam breaks. Teams are good for support but bad for encouraging initiative and truth-telling. At the same time, we need the sense of acceptance and stability that comes from being able to trust those around us.

If your unthinking assumptions are about to break under the pressure of change, shouldn’t you be thankful to those who draw them to your attention in time? What about the “disloyal” whistle-blowers who alert the public to hidden corruption and deceit? Aren’t they important and valuable people, often moved by a stronger sense of moral duty than the rest of us?

There is a way to reconcile loyalty with openness to uncomfortable truth. It’s based on exercising ethical choice. When people think through the ethics of trust, and the basis of their support for boss or employer, they can see where the balance lies between being honest (even if that involves dissent) and being disloyal.

In any culture that prizes loyalty above all else, fear becomes the major emotion: fear of doing or saying anything that might suggest dissension; fear of exercising individual freedom to think and speak. Sadly, some major commercial and political organizations seem not too far from producing exactly such a culture.

Few things in life are black-and-white, however much some people try to make them so. Failure to question received opinions quickly leads to ethical blindness. Unquestioning loyalty is no loyalty at all. Sometimes what the boss most needs is to hear the truth, before he or she says or does something that will bring harm to themselves and others. Our intellectual and personal freedom is too important to surrender it to help our masters shut themselves away from uncomfortable questioning.

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Francois said...

I find it interesting that you decided to write on the topic of "Loyalty and a culture of fear". In my experience, there is simply no loyalty at all toward an employer any longer. That has been the case ever since large corporations have decided to use layoffs in order to improve their bottom line instead of working on improving the efficiency of their operations.

In my opinion, we could use a bit more loyalty out there. On the other hand, I do agree with you that too much loyalty is not good either. Interesting topic nonetheless and food for thoughts.



8:19 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Francois.

Is there no loyalty today? I agree that many organizations show little or no loyalty to their staff — and therefore deserve none in return. And that their actions have made many people feel much less willing to act loyally towards their employers.

But I think that my point still stands. Too much loyalty is stifling, just as too little destroys trust. And being too loyal to an organization can stop people from asking the tough questions, and making the detailed challenges, that are needed.

People who behave ethically give loyalty when it is deserved and offer respect at all times, even when their ethics demands that they speak out in opposition. It is blind loyalty that is the most dangerous, along with the fear created when bosses punish people for a supposed lack of commitment.

Keep reading, my friend.

9:45 PM  
Jerome Alexander said...

Loyalty to companies used to be a two way street. Unfortunately, most of today's companies are located on cul-de-sacs.

6:55 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Jeronme. Great comment.

7:14 PM  
Charlie said...

I agree that it's hard to keep a balance between loyalty and initiative. We all have our choices in life and it's different when loyalty stands in the way.

1:27 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Charlie.

6:38 AM  
Howie said...

I think loyalty doesn't have to be in it's purest form which doesn't question. We need to be careful and sure of our decisions so that loyalty wouldn't stand in the way when it comes to truth.

5:41 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Howie

6:11 PM  

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