Is loyalty to the boss and the company always admirable?

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 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.

Loyalty has long been highly valued by leaders. The more authoritarian and dogmatic the leader, the more they prize loyalty in their followers. Dictators—political and organizational— usually surround themselves with “yes-men” eager to prove their loyalty by saying whatever the people in power will find most acceptable.

That kind of loyalty stifles creativity and discourages people’s willingness to speak the truth about their leaders, themselves, or their work. The pressure to fit in and suppress unpleasant realities can be overwhelming. The result is a culture of fear: fear of even appearing “disloyal” by questioning anything the organization or the boss says or does—even if (especially if?) it’s foolish or likely to result in some embarrassing mistake.

To be loyal . . or to speak out?

Getting the right balance between loyalty and initiative isn’t as simple as it sounds. 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.

Ought loyalty to be prized more than curiosity and independent thought? Curiosity is certainly uncomfortable. Skeptics make you mad when they challenge what you’ve come to believe and automatically rely on—especially in areas you maybe don’t want looked at too closely.

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.

In any culture—organizational or societal—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 to be seeking to produce exactly such a culture around us today. Dissent is dissent, not disloyalty—which is why, in the British House of Commons, the opposition is known as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. You can oppose those in charge—even vehemently—and still be a loyal corporate citizen or patriot. Never allow extremists to brand opposition to their views as disloyal or unpatriotic. The next step from there is recreating the Gestapo.

What is true loyalty?

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?

There will be times when true loyalty is best expressed by speaking out. and uncovering or challenging a mistake before real harm is done. That’s the trouble with simplistic attitudes towards complex human issues. Is it more loyal to keep you mouth and eyes shut—and allow the boss or the organization to foul up—or to openly express your concerns and doubts while there is still time to change course?

But will the boss understand? What happens if, loyally, someone points out an embarrassing issue—only to be instantly squashed and humiliated as a result? 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?

An unthinking reverence for loyalty as either silence on difficult issues or unquestioning support quickly produces that culture of fear: the culture in which staying silent is the only safe option—since you can always pretend ignorance and claim you were taken by surprise when things went wrong; the culture in which loyalty is so highly valued that people stick together, like lemmings, and loyally jump off the cliff. Competitors ought to cherish such excessively loyal organizations, where no one is ready to rock the boat by pointing out how fast they’re becoming obsolete. It will make their job of taking over the market laughably easy.

A matter of balance

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

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 on 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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