Workplace Loyalty: We Have To Do Things Differently

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By Dr Sudeep Mohandas, A member of MIM

Only way to be King is to oust the present King, be elected as one, be born as the next heir for King or marry into the family as the Queen’s consort. So, who does my loyalty lie with?

A deep understanding of why people are not necessarily loyal at the workplace became to me clear upon reading the book, The Brahmin by Ravi Shankar Etteth.

It dawned upon me that one has losses the loyalty from their team and peers once they lose command and ability to lead their team effectively.

The issue is not about obeisance or obedience. It is something else. Cited articles refer to workplace loyalty as a measure of best interest to any organisation to be successful. This cannot happen absolutely as every organisation has its own workplace conflicts that in itself results in disloyalty.

An atmosphere of conflict will not inspire employee longevity. When workplace conflict is not resolved, it may hurt the organisation and its employees in various ways.

In the book, The Brahmin, the spymaster (the leader of spies) has to be loyal to the King and yet distant from the results of his own actions. He has to accept the consequences but be able to manoeuvre and manipulate his way through his King and Queen and his team of spies.

The King however could not trust anyone, even those who saved him from a life-threatening event. Yet, the King has to be loyal to a few people who he can rely on for help. This is precisely why the issue of loyalty is a lot more complicated than it appears to be and requires a deeper understanding.

Ensuring we achieve results and productivity at the workplace is determined by a trust deficit between superior and employee. Trust at the workplace is what many gurus in management say is a key attribute to leadership success or how a person can make the difference to his/her teams accomplishment. Trust is the spoiler to any relationship.

Making every effort to ensure one’s team is happy, supported and developed is not the yardstick to increase loyalty ratings. Instead it could harm the ratings as the person may find misalignment to their own personal motivations.

This will lead to a drop in loyalty to the person or purpose. The superior then becomes the problem and not the solution.

An example of this happened when Claudio Ranieri was sacked from being the manager of Leicester City Football Club after bringing the club to win the English Premier League in a fairy tale fashion. No one ever believed or thought that such a club will win the league.

It was considered to be a sporting miracle. What was interesting was that the efforts of the manager to make such a thing happen for the club and fans seemed like a dream. Still, the following year he was sacked. In fact, there was news that the players themselves were unhappy with him.

What happened? The manner in which Ranieri had been shown off the premises prompted questions about basic loyalty from his players who were not aligned to the manager and lost their purpose after winning the championship.

Based on the book, The Philosophy of Loyalty, authors Royce and McDermott explained that loyalty requires a cause, a mission or purpose greater than the individual.

But while a cause is greater than any one individual, “[T]he cause to which a loyal man is devoted is never something wholly impersonal.”

They went on to state that if one wants loyal employees, the supervisor needs to feel personally connected. The job of a leader is make the employees feel personally connected to the mission or purpose.

This is perhaps where Ranieri failed. He perhaps assumed he got absolute loyalty that was unchallenged after winning the cup for the first time.

So how does a leader actually get their team to be personally connected to a mission or purpose? What happens if the employees do not align?

Many experts have touched on how to ensure employees feel inspired by the leadership. They say the leader needs to set the tone to their employees as not merely hired hands but people with needs, desires and dreams.

“Never push a loyal person to the point where they no longer give a damn.”

Japan, was once known for its loyal workforce. Commonly described as shushinkoyo or “lifetime employment”, this culture of undying company loyalty emerged in the 1920s when major Japanese organisations recruited university graduates and promised lifetime job security and benefits as a way to retain talent. In return, employees worked hard and pledged strong loyalty to their company.

Today, amid the long economic recession over the past decade, however, many businesses have implemented mass layoffs thus with job security no longer guaranteed, fewer Japanese today actually subscribe to the practice of shushinkoyo.

This once upon a time highly valued attribute from employees is also no longer highly valued among hirers in Asia. More and more organisations across the globe today regularly roll out employee layoffs numbering in the thousands, offering little assurance of job security, and yet there is this effort from Human Resource practitioners to still to expect loyalty from employees who no longer feel they will be justly rewarded if they gave their blood and sweat to the organisation.

According to SAP’s Workforce 2020 survey conducted by Oxford Economics, just 27% of executives in the Asia-Pacific region considered long-term loyalty and retention as a critical component in their talent strategy, despite the fact that 82% hired mostly full-time workers.

So what is the tangible returns for an employee to be loyal to an organisation?

The trick is in ensuring loyalty from the employee is invested through a career development and succession development process. From the Workforce 2020 study, it was also discovered that 46% employees in Asia-Pacific identified opportunities for career development as the most important component in ensuring their loyalty and engagement in a company.

Here are two methods that can instil into the employees a sense of loyalty to their workplace:

1. Have a Career Advancement Model

Having excellent compensation, rewards, benefits, mentorship, employee brand are default contributors to the millennial.
If there is no career track model at hand, organisations will lose their employees sooner than later.

Make sure that each and every employee has time to review his or her own career development plan. Understanding where an employee wants be career-wise will help any organisation make better decisions for the future.

Not every employee has a clear career path in mind, and some have high expectations but not a clear road map. By sitting down and understanding where an employee expects to go, the organisation will then have the ability to co-pilot the journey.

Obviously not all goals can be met, but realistic expectations should be embraced, even if it means mentoring an employee knowing that they are going to be leaving when the right position becomes available to them.

An organisation that displays interest to help the employee grow in their developmental process can prolong the length
of stay in the organisation.

2. Set Succession Plan Upfront

Knowing what will happen in three years to the employee in the organisation is necessary for planning. If an organisation cannot map where the employees will be in three years within the organisation, then it is best to assume they will be working for someone else. Creating a succession plan will help avoid a crisis when the inevitable happens.

In a perfect world, one would always have employees who are ready to move up the ladder of success within the organisation. But since we do not live in a perfect world, we should be constantly evaluating what are the risks of losing key employees. Anyone with more than one year in an organisation should be looked at and evaluated based on how they match up with moving into a new role or gaining new responsibilities.

It is Not a Generation Issue

Although we may be familiar with the generation of millennials loyalty towards changing of jobs but what is not raised as a pertinent concern is that loyalty to a job has even dropped among the Gen X and baby boomers.

In the Workforce 2020 survey conducted, 80% of respondents (inclusive of Gen X and baby boomers) agreed that the definition of loyalty in the workplace had changed over time. Whether one works for a company 10 years or 10 months, itself to the employee is still loyalty.

At the workplace more and more employees are taking the view they are the sole drivers of their own careers. The sense of fulfilment, trust and a desire to start their own company comes out tops as the reasons for their disloyalty.

Loyalty is all About Purpose and Values

Loyalty means so many things to so many individuals of different communities, generation, nationalities and organisations. To some it is time bound, to others it is about honour and relationships.

When the employee is constantly loyal to an organisation it is often forgotten that their reasons are based on the principles or values adopted by the organisation. These principles and values are often adopted and taken through the life journey of the employee even after they have left the organisation.

Their link to the organisation is endless.

Alternatively, if an employee detaches themselves from the organisation it is often because of a misalignment to the purpose and values of the organisation.

The employee’s tenure in the organisation then diminishes as the loyalty decreases over time.

How it works:

When: Employee alignment to workplace increases it means employee’s purpose and values are aligned to workplace;

Only then: The loyalty to workplace will increase and this determines the length of stay in the organisation

So, the next time we are confronted with a high potential talent who has decided to resign, think about what could have been done to avoid this. It is advisable to appreciate that the new reality of employee loyalty can only be addressed if the workplace stays ahead by being proactive in changing systems and practises.

Dr Sudeep Mohandas is the co-author of “What Influences the Generation Y to join a Nonprofit Organisation”. He has written many articles on nonprofit management and general management for C-Suite Professionals especially for MIM. He is the co-founder and managing director of I First International, an organisation that offers consultancy services to the nonprofit sector.


The author would like to extend his gratitude to Farahida Mohd Farid, general manager of National Cancer Council of Malaysia for reviewing and raising her professional views on the subject matter.


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