Friday, June 13, 2014

The Myth of Loyalty

There is no such thing as loyalty.

Let us take a moment to ponder that statement and let it sink in.

When I have this conversation with people, as you would expect I get a whole myriad of responses.  Some people think I'm crazy, some look confused, and others just nod sagely.  This topic is not one for light conversation because it goes against centuries, if not millennia of closely held beliefs.

Because every controversial position needs a caveat, let's get a few out of the way.  When we talk about loyalty, we are not confusing it with any of the following:
  • Love
  • Fidelity
  • Fanaticism
  • Fear
In a marriage, two people can stay together out of love but not be loyal to one another.  A person can stay a "fan" of a sports team (that's for you, my Cubs) and spend a lot of money on their products, but that's not loyalty either.  You could safely attribute these actions to obsession, but not loyalty.

Over the years, companies have spent millions, if not billions, of dollars on maintaining and building loyalty.  Internally, firms launch programs designed to establish and enhance the loyalty of their employees.  Externally, the same is done in the name of retaining customers.  If you watch commercials, you will see that there are programs called "Loyalty Rewards" and incentives with names like "Loyalty Cash".

Throughout history we have a multitude of stories about loyalty.  Whether you read about Alexander the Great and his Companions or the Japanese soldiers' dedication to Emperor Hirohito during World War 2, we have many examples of the supposed existence of loyalty.  We can even look to popular fiction to see the popularity of the idea.  Just read "The Three Musketeers" by Alexandre Dumas ("All for One and One for All!") or one of the many fables about King Arthur and The Knights of Round Table. 

Given all of that, I will say it again.  There is no such thing as loyalty.  What we label as "Loyalty" is actually a much more simple, hard-wired aspect of humanity called self interest. There is a whole branch of study devoted to this topic called "Psychological egoism".  Here is a quick excerpt from the description on Wikpedia linked to above:

Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It claims that, when people choose to help others, they do so ultimately because of the personal benefits that they themselves expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so. 
A specific form of psychological egoism is psychological hedonism, the view that the ultimate motive for all voluntary human action is the desire to experience pleasure or to avoid pain.

So let's cut past all of the psycho-babble and get to the point.  As leaders, our success is intricately tied not only to hiring good people but to retaining and engaging them as well.  The sooner you get past the concept of trying to build loyalty, the sooner you can get to know your people.  Take the time to really understand what motivates them.  Ultimately, learn what actually comprises their individual self interest and target your management strategies to maximize those things that people value the most

Your people might like or even love you, but try not paying them for a month.  Will they stick around?  Odds are highly in favor of them not.  The fact is that your people stay with you (and the company) because they are in a situation that they deem to meet their needs, ie. self-interest. 

It is no secret that the companies which perform the highest on the yearly rankings of "Best Places to Work" already realize this concept.  In these organizations, you will see many of the same perks: flex time, telecommuting, on-site child care, work assignment flexibility, comfortable and convenient campuses, and a focus on education.  Even if you are not in a position to provide all of these benefits, as leaders and executives you assuredly have more power than you think.  For me, personally, the one benefit that I can give consistently is the opportunity for people to get training.  In the IT world, that "perk" has an incredible power to satisfy employees.

When you stop thinking about abstract ideas like loyalty and focus on concrete things such as personal need, you can become a much more effective leader.  It's really simple in the end: Learn what makes each of your people tick and then give that to them.  At least as much as you can.  I guarantee that you will be surprised at the positive results.

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