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The hidden dangers of workplace loyalty

If you’ve ever watched the TV show Survivor, you’ll know that as the game unfolds, the cast members build alliances, ditch alliances and generally scheme as they try to plot their way to the top of the totem pole.

Loyalty between the players lasts for a while, but they know that they’ll need to cast it aside to win the game. Sometimes workplaces can resemble a game of Survivor as loyalties form, shift and subside.

As a leader, it feels good to have people around you who are loyal. A boss who supports and encourages you. Colleagues who will be there when you need it and don’t have hidden agendas. Team members who have your back and who buy into your ideas and support their implementation.

The issue with workplace loyalty

Loyalty is important because it strengthens connections and relationships. American author Mario Puzo, best known as the author of the book The Godfather, once remarked, "The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other."

But can loyalty go too far? What would you do if the person you are loyal to asks you to do something you disagree with? What if being loyal to someone means being disloyal to yourself?

While the word loyalty evokes positive and healthy sentiments, it can also provoke unhealthy feelings, particularly if loyalty is about allegiance and adherence without questioning.

First, let’s start with you because we often don’t think about being loyal to ourselves. In essence, it’s about self-care. That is, treating yourself with the same kindness, care and compassion you would show to others. Prioritising the time to ensure you’re in the best physical and mental shape is essential. When you fail to take proper care of yourself, it’s impossible to be your best each day at work.

Second, let’s consider loyalty to the people with whom you work. Being loyal isn’t just about supporting them, doing what they want you to do or saying what they want you to say.

The most loyal friends and work colleagues are the ones who want the best for the other person. Consequently, they are willing to have tough conversations. These are conversations they don’t want to have because they know the message is hard to hear. They aren’t spiteful conversations, but rather courageous conversations designed to enhance the relationship and secure optimal outcomes.

Third, in a team environment, you’ll want to have a team that supports and backs one another – one that is loyal. However, it can be easy to fall into the trap of mistaking agreement for loyalty.

The best teams can be loyal to one another and still fiercely and productively debate and disagree among themselves. If everyone is blindly loyal to the rest of the team, they miss the opportunity to learn and grow. The issues that need airing stay underground. Dissent is silenced because disagreement is construed as disloyalty.

The real meaning of loyalty

Encourage your team members to question, challenge and be forever curious. With those factors at the forefront of their minds, they will be more willing to challenge assumptions and expectations, and dig into the roadblocks holding back the team. They will also be ready to engage in spirited conversations, which requires them to show up, think deeply about their perspectives and be open to change.

Loyalty matters, but not at the expense of debate, learning and progress.

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the author of three books including her latest, Bad Boss: What to Do if You Work for One, Manage One or Are One.

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