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What should employees be loyal to? Ask an average leader: to the company, of course. Loyalty may be disguised. It may be called something else, perhaps commitment, dare I say a form of (here we go again) employee engagement. In any case, as in ‘engagement’, there is no point to ask for ‘loyalty’ without more qualifications. But there is a lot of a point to understand that plurality.

People in organizations are loyal to many things:

  1. To a cause. It may be the company’s cause, or not. It may be an ideal cause that the company may not even have, but people pretend it’s there.
  2. To people, friends, colleagues. Sometimes, this is a reason to stay in a job that is not satisfying, or to prolong the agony of a dysfunctional working situation.
  3. To a place. People may find difficult to move offices, or sites. It’s quite irrational sometimes, but powerful. Place and space have high magnetic properties.
  4. To a figure, a person, a leader, such as the CEO. Even if that CEO has perhaps never crossed a personal word with you.
  5. To themselves, their own idea of life, or how life should be. Once there, it may become sticky and irrational. You think you fit in, so you do.
  6. To your cognitive dissonance. Which is to say to your mind being in charge, and not accepting that you made the wrong decision, such as joining that company.
  7. To a product, or idea, or something to develop. Many people work in some R&D or, say, pharma companies, just because one single idea, or product to develop and put in the market. It’s the cure of, not the company that is looking for it.

All loyalties are irrational. All loyalties are a choice. All you can do as leader is to host that rich and irrational plural, and provide the conditions so that at least one of them has to do with the organization itself.

Customer loyalty has been studied at nauseam. It’s often overrated. Employee loyalty has been buried in other things such as engagement.

Loyalty, unsettles me. I have it as number one in my value set. I am not sure why. Oh, I know, just said, its irrational. That’s why its so strong.

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  1. Scott E. Fahlman

    I would add one more kind of loyalty to the list.

    I once sat in on a discussion with Allen Newell, one of the founders of out department and of the field of AI, and a wise leader. I was junior faculty at the time, so I didn’t say much, but the leaders were talking about how to keep the people we value most in the fluid hi-tech world. Allen said, “People are very loyal to organizations when they feel that they had a hand in building them. You want ‘your baby’ to succeed, and you want to stick around to help make that happen.” And, indeed, I realized that in our department the junior people were empowered to an unusual degree in helping to make all the decisions, probably for this reason. Or maybe the old guys were just lazy. 🙂

    The other principle that runs through all kinds of loyalty is that it had to run both ways. If the organization or its leaders are not loyal to you, you won’t be loyal to them.

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