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16 Apr '12

The issue of staff loyalty

"Are they loyal to me?" is the question that many leaders ask themselves about their staff. Sometimes in conflictual situations, a leader will either ask or demand loyalty of their staff. In negotiating through conflict I have often heard the charge, "he or she is not loyal to me as their leader," which usually means they don't belong in the organization anymore.

I believe, by the way that loyalty is a good thing and that healthy organizations and leaders have a great deal of loyalty. There is a difference, however between loyalty and subservience. 

When I hear this kind of thing I always ask the question, "What is your definition of loyalty?" Some of the more interesting and problematic responses I have received are "that he/she agree with me," or "that they do what I tell them to do and how I tell them to do it." For others it means, "never question my decisions (implicitly or explicitly)." I find these problematic definitions because they remove the autonomy of thinking from the staff member and insist that they allow their leader to think for them. That, by the way is how cults start. And how many dysfunctional staffs operate.

In my experience, the removal of staff on a charge that they are not loyal is usually more of a reflection on an insecure or narcissistic leader than it is on the conduct of the staff member. Unless one  can demonstrate that an individual's behavior is harmful to the organization, labeling someone as "disloyal" and marginalizing or firing them is a reflection of an unhealthy leader rather than an unhealthy staff member who may simply be thinking for himself/herself and expressing themselves honestly. Beware of leaders who have a pattern of dismissing or marginalizing people on the basis of a lack of loyalty.

There are gradations of loyalty. Our highest loyalty cannot truly be to any person but it is to God. Thus, if any individual, leader or not, asks us to violate a moral or ethical standard or skirt the truth our loyalty to God trumps our willingness to do as we have been asked even if out of "loyalty."

Our next highest level of loyalty is to the mission of the organization we work for. If I don't believe in the mission of my organization and cannot be loyal to that cause I am in the wrong spot. So while I work for the most empowering leader ever, I do not serve because of him but because of the cause of the organization. He makes it a joy to work for the organization and I might not be there under another leader.

So what about loyalty to our leaders? One dictionary defines loyalty as "Faithful to any leader, party, or cause, or to any person or thing conceived as deserving fidelity: a loyal friend."  Notice that it is couched in the term faithfulness and only to a person or cause that is "deserving of fidelity." In other words, loyalty cannot be demanded but it can be deserved and earned.

But take this one step further. What does faithfulness to a leader entail? It certainly means that we want the very best for them and for the organization they lead. Thus there will be times when we specifically do not agree with them if a decision they are making is going to hurt them or the organization. Loyalty by definition speaks up (respectfully) when one is concerned about and issue. It does not stay passively silent and supportive. Loyalty means that my leaders trusts me to be supportive of him/her and the organization, and not to do anything that would undermine it or them. 

In our organization, I would want these characteristics from our staff: Loyalty to the cause, respect for and cooperation with those who lead, and nothing that undermines either the mission or those who lead including cynicism and mistrust. Honesty and candidness in communication with the best of the organization always in mind. 

I also have a set of expectations for leaders toward those on their teams. Loyalty and respect go two ways.

Leaders who demand loyalty no matter what are merely looking for "yes" people who will do their bidding. Healthy leaders want to be respected but they want their staff to be honest, candid and to think for themselves - and speak up when needed. Unhealthy leaders categorize staff into two camps: those for me or against me - a dysfunctional definition of loyalty and disloyalty. Those who do this lose the support of healthy staff and build a staff of people who know that they cannot cross their leader.