Why is Loyalty a Problem?

WHETHER I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Life presents us with a number of problems, or puzzles, to solve as we go through it. Part of growing up is solving those puzzles successfully. Successful solutions to the puzzles of human development in today’s world often seem to involve not only ourselves and effects on ourselves, but the influence of others and effects on others. Certainly, this is one of the fundamental lessons learned by teams.

One of the greatest puzzles we face in work life is the separation between ourselves and the organization that sustains us.

The fundamental agreements we make when we join an organization are often not explicitly discussed. For instance, the extent to which the organizational culture will ultimately influence your life is rarely discussed. One fundamental agreement that is most likely to be discussed is your loyalty to the organization.

This conversation typically takes place out of context of what loyalty is and whether there is a higher, but related, value. I call that value fidelity to oneself. My research into definitions and conversations with thinking people whose minds I use as whet stones for my own lead me to believe that you can be loyal to a person or an organization but faithful (showing fidelity) to a principle or agreement. That is how I use those terms. I think we are wise to know our own principles and be faithful to them more than to unthinkingly grant the organization’s claims to our loyalty.

We all know that sometimes organizations do bad things. The negative example of Enron still resonates for many of us. We have so many others since then in the mortgage-related economic meltdown in 2008 and others prior to Enron, as well. In War and Peace Tolstoy pointed out, a number of times, that Napoleon could not have been so successful in his military campaigns if it were not for the support—and loyalty—of every foot soldier. Tolstoy challenges us to be aware of the value of our precious life energy and to think about what it is expended to support.

Given that it is important to be conscious about where and how we expend the life energy we have, it’s worthwhile to consider the notions of loyalty and fidelity. The problem is well described in David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of Soul in Corporate America. Whyte depicts the malaise of the worker stepping over some sort of obstruction in the doorway to the workplace each day. Then one day she realizes the obstruction is a corpse and that corpse is her own. As Whyte says “We flee . . . The grief is too much” (p. 183). Some time back my colleague, III, described the state of being so out of touch with our own principles and purposes as a state of “afidelity.”

When my attention was first drawn to the problem of loyalty as a paramount organizational virtue, I had been doing a great deal of reading about the social realities of World War II. And I had been reviewing conflict theory as I prepared a conference paper on the Ladder of Unmanaged Conflict. I noticed the idea of allegiance in both models, one a construct for use with nations and the other a construct for use in organizations. And in both cases, I noticed that the act of calling on allies invoked a drawing of power from one nation or person to another. It also seemed to imply a tacit agreement on the part of the ally to take on all known and unknown risks inherent in the conflict and, essentially, support their ally in the face of whatever behavior that ally may be exhibiting. If they did not do so their loyalty was called into question. It seemed to me that all claims on loyalty contained some aspect of this giving up individual liberty of thought and ethical judgment in favor of inferred safety provided by the group, in other words, the characteristics of groupthink.

Claims on loyalty draw power to the claimant from the ally upon whom she makes the claim of loyalty. Whenever our life energy, or power, is being drawn upon, it should be allowed consciously, as with any other asset. We might first think this is because of a possible scarcity. But at least as important is what we are supporting by granting that transfer of power. The outcomes of granting that power are ultimately the same whether or not we have clearly understood the claimant’s context, purposes, and related actions toward others. So it is best to understand those purposes and whether they align with our own before we find ourselves confronted with our own corpse, the effigy of our misspent power, at the door to our workplace.

Recently, I was at a Lean Coffee discussion on technology and culture. We were talking about the ethical responsibilities of software development teams (at the micro level) to make choices in the best interests of the tech economy (at the macro level). We could all see how our small choices each day as individuals impact the organization we work for and, sometimes sooner than we realize, the industry as a whole. Then one participant with decades of experience in the business quietly said something like “when I think of all the things I’ve done in some of the organizations I’ve worked for over the years and what those organizations have done . . .” The rest of us with similar experience levels knew what he meant. Sometimes, while pursuing the excitement of the work in the moment, we can forget to notice what ends—and whose ends—we are furthering. And sometimes, we simply balance the good we can do in our sphere of influence against the harm we may be contributing to by sustaining a given organization or product.

Choosing loyalty to the organization over fidelity to ourselves can compromise personal integrity and leave us in a state of afidelity. Unconscious granting of loyalty to the organization without knowing our own principles hollows us out over time: we lose our personal identity and can even lose our selves.

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