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The assault on loyalty


The assault on loyalty

Dorothy was right. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Sadly, we are not even over the rainbow! It’s amazing that the Wizard of Oz was so prescient, particularly when applied to a subject that has left man with many a sleepless night: loyalty.

Various dictionaries define loyalty as the state or quality of being loyal to commitments and obligations. It’s also about faithful adherence to a sovereign power, government, leader, cause, etc. It is a word that enjoys many evocative synonyms, such as fidelity, allegiance, fealty and devotion. Implicit to loyalty is the sentiment that it is unwavering and that it is manifest in powerful concepts such as ‘extreme’ or ‘fierce’. It’s a notion that man has been aware of long before his or her awakening to religion. Clearly, it is no trivial matter and it runs deep.

Like so many other values and ideals in the world that are undergoing massive change and/or tremendous stress, loyalty is also being tested. We’re observing it across all walks of life and it’s not surprising that we also see it undergoing dramatic change in the workplace. Like the rest of society, the workplace is starting to cluster on different ends of the spectrum. On one end are the old-school employees, whose view is that loyalty is no longer what it used to be, what with the younger generation no longer demonstrating adherence to this value and jumping ship at the first sign of opportunity or trouble. On the other end is the younger generation, whose notion of loyalty is neither seen nor judged through the prism of their elders and whose manifestation of it is to protect the self and self-interest.

So who’s right and who’s wrong? Is there a singular standard to measure loyalty? These are legitimate questions and, heaven knows, often weigh heavy on me. It’s naive to expect that we will all rally around one view; it is perhaps wiser to consider that, today, loyalty is subject to the pull of multiple forces determining where different people sit on its spectrum.

It goes without saying that we live in a world where power is mutating and traditional structures are altering beyond recognition. Weberian top-down command and control systems are being challenged, throwing millions into disarray, causing much disorientation and testing of personal values. At times like these, the absoluteness of loyalty will be questioned, leading people to examine and redefine it beyond the tabooed concept that we have grown up with.

As the focus of power shifts from the top to the bottom, ‘top-down’ communicated notions will not escape scrutiny, especially as the traditional benefits of loyalty – protection, prosperity,

reward and progress – become difficult to reconcile with what organizations are able to provide to their people.

The second force to exert a gravitational pull on loyalty is happiness. Despite all research, the jury is still out among both psychologists and biologists on the causes and measurement of happiness. In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, author Yuval Noah Harari devotes an entire chapter to dissecting happiness and some of his conclusions are simply eye-opening. One view is that “happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations. If you want a bullock-cart and get a bullock-cart, you are content. If you want a brand new Ferrari and get only a second-hand Fiat, you feel deprived…”

The other view is one forwarded by biologists; as stated in Harari’s book: “[Happiness] is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin… People are made happy by one thing and one thing only: pleasant sensations in their bodies.”

Whether we evaluate happiness psychologically or biologically, loyalty will be heavily influenced by a desire for upward mobility. In fact, today, psychology and biology are converging to dislodge the long-held view that loyalty is unshakable.

The last force is cultural and local context, which will act as a brake or an accelerator depending on how traditional and how deep the sentiments are toward loyalty. Are we looking at loyalty through the lens of a tribal or feudal closely-knit society, where the community’s opinion of one’s behavior ranks high and the community is small enough for its will to be enforced? Or are we viewing the notion through a modern lens where pursuing prosperity is an endeavor that has to be chased? Is this perhaps the only motivation powerful enough to sway one’s loyalty, especially in a stalled economy?

When sifted through these three filters, it’s clear that the traditional understanding and practice of loyalty are going to be heavily contested and challenged. One could be forgiven for thinking that loyalty will fall by the wayside, though my view is that this is too dramatic a conclusion and that man’s value-system (despite much proof to the contrary) runs much deeper than we may give it credit for. Yet, there is a simple conclusion: we cannot take loyalty for granted and assume that it is an impenetrable fortress. Like all values, loyalty needs to be vindicated if it is to survive, which doesn’t mean that it will be, or should be, rewarded all the time. It does mean that it should not be foolishly or ignorantly tested and pushed to fail.

Ultimately, Dorothy is indeed right; we are not in Kansas anymore.


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