Monday, November 8, 2010

Is Loyalty Dead?

The highest spiritual quality, the noblest property of mind a man can have, is this of loyalty ... a man with no loyalty in him, with no sense of love or reverence or devotion due to something outside and above his poor daily life, with its pains and pleasures, profits and losses, is as evil a case as man can be.

Charles Swinburne, English poet, Ode to Mazzini

Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.
Howard Zinn, American historian

A man is not an orange. You can't eat the fruit and throw the peel away.
Arthur Miller, American playwright, Death of a Salesman

You rarely hear about the virtue of loyalty, except perhaps for a soldier for his nation. Such emotional appeals to loyalty to the state, often wrapped in the flags of nationalism, benefit only the few leaders in power. Such narrow loyalties are not only divisive and polarizing, but they tend to drain the energies of citizens for the more important loyalties, namely, the day-to-day interactions between humans. 

These relationships between people in society encompass a wide range of activities and pursuits, between buyer and seller, between neighbours, between friends, and between employer and employee.

For example, in business, the idea that an employer ought to be loyal to employers, and employees to employer died in the 1990s, when corporations began downsizing, right-sizing and all the other corporate exercises that became the norm. This has become accepted practice. If you ask any person younger than, say, 30 about loyalty to an employer, he would likely think that you were from another planet.

Perhaps so. So, what has happened to the virtue of loyalty?  It has taken a beating, but it shouldn't says, Frederick F. Reichheld, a management consultant and author of The Loyalty Effect:
Loyalty is dead, the experts proclaim, and the statistics seem to bear them out. On average, U.S. corporations now lose half their customers in five years, half their employees in four, and half their investors in less than one. We seem to face a future in which the only business relationships will be opportunistic transactions between virtual strangers.
And many are proud of their opportunistic nature, looking to evolutionary theories of behaviour and consumption to justify their actions. In all fairness to the academics who conduct the studies and write the papers on evolutionary theories, they are only reporting their findings. Not necessarily condoning their actions. At least, that's the argument they make.

True Loyalty: Foxie, guarding the body of her master Charles Gough, in Attachment by Edwin Landseer, 1829.
But, it's not so simple as that.  Humans tend to become pack animals and tend not only to follow the leader, but to also reduce complex arguments to simple ones. Unintended consequences follow. What invariably happens over time is that the explanation of behaviour eventually becomes the justification for the actions that follow.

Thus, if Science says that humans tend to be more opportunistic because they first look out for themselves, a result of their evolutionary development, then that becomes the de facto way to act. It's as if humans want to get a jump on an outcome, and be the first. And it becomes the norm? The argument soon gets flipped around to: "Humans must become opportunistic to survive." Although this is not the same original finding as that of the academic researcher, the more simpler explanation survives and becomes the cultural norm.

Then the business press picks up on it, consultants and experts write books on it, and it gets fed to the executives of large concerns, Hence, the need for rationalization and so-called Darwinian behaviour is justified by Science. And people could be hired and fired at will, used up and tossed away like the proverbial orange. One result is that loyalty becomes a thing of the past, which is one of the unintended consequences of the original research.

The result is a lot of unnecessary stress, Sturm und Drang, to use a fitting literary term, certainly for employees, but also for employers, who are caught in this never-ending hiring-and-firing syndrome. If you take a step back, and view it from a distance, reflect on it, you would see that it is a most unhealthy situation.

In truth, people want to be loyal, not only to employers, but to each other. But it will take some work on the part of humanity, in particular against the conventional thinking of Management Sciences, to bring loyalty to the forefront of society. It could be done, if we remember what is really important in human relations. There are reasons that many look to dogs for loyalty, since these loving animals often display more loyalty than humans.

Much of the management theories and literature are short of the values and virtues that count for a well-operating society: individual dignity, compassion, decency, fairness and loyalty. These are among the few virtues that build a just and equitable society. It's worth thinking about if that's what we want.

Ed note: In other news, about future plans to post my my novel-in-progress, see Announcements.

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