The Great Reciprocation: Loyalty is a two-way street
As he lay dying from a dagger wound, a man confided to his wife, "I cannot die without telling you the truth. I cheated on you throughout our marriage. All those nights when I told you I was working late, I was being unfaithful. And this year I had made up my mind to abandon you." She looked at him calmly and said, "Don’t fret now. Who do you think stabbed you in the back?"
I apologize for altering a joke so old that it’s more taste-free than tasteless but I have been reminded of it every time there’s been a headline about the Great Resignation. Though that somewhat klutzy phrase was first used by Anthony Klotz, it seems to have become the defining problem of HR management since Covid times. Even in India, where the tragedies of the great retrenchments far outnumbered resignations, given the levels and job types that resigned, HR’s attention was hypnotized by the uncoagulating bleed. Unlike the joke, the culminating departures are plain for all to see. What’s frequently missing in all the exit drama is the equivalent of the disloyal partner’s guilt. This column attempts to provide it.
From cooperation to loyalty
Cooperation, starting with kin and progressing to ever larger aggregations of people, was among the primary reasons for the supremacy homo sapiens acquired.1 The benefits started flowing from an early stage. "… [E]ven in foraging societies people regularly cooperate with many unrelated individuals. …[S]ocial life is regulated by shared moral systems that specify the rights and duties of individuals enforced, albeit imperfectly, by third party sanctions."2 With the passage of time, societies that perfected large-scale cooperation between greater proportions of their populations (while reducing the transactional costs through lubricants such as trust)3 came to dominate the globe.
Loyalty evolved from cooperation and permitted partnership with a wider range of institutional and mythical objects than the latter. Harari explains the mythical aspect well (though he continues to use the word 'cooperation'): "Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination."4 It is not only in the range of protagonists that loyalty accepts more variety than cooperation. It is also content with repayment in a greater diversity of registers. A soldier who pays with hardship or even his life is normally repaid with reputation and honour rather than in the currency he used to demonstrate loyalty. Most importantly, loyalty’s patience in awaiting reciprocation can be on a totally different and much longer time scale than the tit for tat of cooperation. In cases like religion, the time scale can well exceed the term of our natural lives. In the interim, the debtor continues to benefit from the initial and subsequent favours as well as the erosion of repayment value caused by forgetfulness and custom or by a 'deadly' event that writes it off altogether. Corporate loyalty, naturally, does not get as favourable a repayment schedule as religion. It is the company’s illusory hope, that it has near-divine latitude in deferring reciprocation, that is at the root of the great resignation and diverse disaffective diseases.
Types of loyalty
Before getting our teeth into corporate loyalty, it’s worth distinguishing it from other loyalties that operate within the organisation. Loyalty to the corporation competes with and is distinguishable from at least three other workplace loyalties in the minds of employees. A brief review may be useful.
Personal: Loyalty to other persons is the evolutionary origin of the emotion and, in its absence, it’s unlikely the others can form. Forster famously wrote: "[I]f I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. … Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome."5 While not going as far as Dante, I did place the willingness to abandon one’s mentors as one of the Faustian Triad of compromises racing rats make.6 Conversely, declaring one’s debt to them is part of the oath I proposed for HR practitioners.7 While eschewing betrayal, there is, of course, a line one should beware of crossing in helping a friend or mentor at the cost of the organisation.
Professional: There is an even tougher tug of loyalties to resolve when the organisation (usually in the person of a business partner or boss) demands an action that is clearly at variance with the standards set down for the profession. This is clearest in the case of lawyers, accountants and others where the profession has a single rule book to follow. Infringement of professional standards, however, can be no less glaring in HR. I recall in days long past, when I was handling recruitment for a factory, I was asked to sign appointment letters for a group that had not gone through the selection process. The plant was in the midst of IR unrest and some 'toughies' were considered necessary to counter the violence threatened by the union. I refused, to the consternation of the worthy issuing the directive. I wonder which Caribbean Island I would be relaxing on today if a silly thing called professional loyalty hadn’t impeded me.
Ethical: Closely related but even more fraught with threat (either to conscience or tenure) is the loyalty one owes to standards of ethical conduct. The instance I have quoted above could be interpreted in ethical terms but that would be presumptuous on my part. I was just being the bureaucratic professional, refusing to recruit people who hadn’t cleared the interviews and trade tests that were prescribed. But there are clearly situations that cannot be explained away merely as impugnments of professional loyalty. Take the exploitation of contract labour. Even if the precariat meets entry standards, paying them a third of what other employees get is an ethical transgression, regardless of whether there is a legal workaround. The HR practitioners complicit in being disloyal to ethical standards and then, one day, facing short shrift from the company themselves, may perhaps echo Wolsey’s lament:
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.8
Organisational: We finally come back to our prime quarry. The detour, I hope has been useful in pointing out situations where an individual’s loyalty to the organisation cannot be permitted to crowd out other essential loyalties. The converse, of course, is also obvious. The organisation doesn’t hire individuals to share potlach with pals, strut their professional peacockery or sprout saintly sermons. A fine loyalty balance needs to be struck between the four types but that is not our present mission. Our immediate focus is organisational loyalty and how it can be eroded.
His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind
Though single. 9
Milton is referring to Abdiel but he could as well be writing a (rather poetic) description of the loyal employee desired by most companies. In demanding such devotion, companies are relying on the cooperative bias which, as we have just seen, evolution has bestowed on people. "Humans are inclined to engage in long-lasting relationships whose stability does not only rely on cooperation, but often also on loyalty – our tendency to keep interacting with the same partners even when better alternatives exist."10 As we have also seen, however, loyalty is not a permanent overdraft account with no need for repayment reciprocity. It is in this return of affection and material benefits that commercial organisations can falter. Under the pressure of competition, shareholder demands and financially focused leaders, corporates unwittingly deliver 3D death-blows to loyalty.
Devaluation: If this seems a word overloaded with monetary meaning, 'commodification' will do as well. Both refer to an emotion-free calculus of the costs and benefits of the people who give life to the business. Relationships pulsing with feelings become purely transactional. People are no longer partners (regardless of what vapid, value statements claim). They are commodities, to be procured and utilized at the lowest possible cost and then dispensed with when their utility no longer justifies that cost.11 Employees, however, are expected to continue behaving with devotion and respect:
We’re just being honest – not mean –
In treating you like a bean.
But while you’re still part of the scene
Please think us your king and queen.
Denigration: If Devaluation brings the worth of loyalty to zero, Denigration takes it into negative territory. The accountant’s abacus rarely finds it ROI-worthy to water and wait for internal plants to grow. One of the invariable consequences of commodification, then, is the infusion of exotics as overseers or replacements for indigenous strains. Once they cross a critical mass, the colonizers find it in their interest to equate loyalty with sub-standard quality (see CoP* in an earlier column).12 Loyalty then becomes the reviled, ridiculed, residue, finding refuge in the hearts of people who would have borne anything – except insult – for the sake of the organisation. Moreover, since the 'pungi' played to entice Hirgus13 sounds a very different tune from the curved bell that (overtly or discreetly) tolls the confines of internal merit increases, the material costs of loyalty are plain for all to see. The lesson is not lost on those who have stood and waited.
Decapitation: Even after the calculator replaces the heart in employee dealings, three factors can retard the loss of loyalty and its substitution with an unfeeling transactional mindset:
- Time: By definition, loyalty is not lost at the first sign of neglect and, therefore, it is almost never too late to remedy matters.
- Temperament: Employees vary in the extent to which they hold fast to memories of emotionally bonded days gone by or to hopes of their return. "[Some] of these 'loyalists'… may simply refuse to exit and suffer in silence, confident that things will soon get better." 14
- Tradition: A few lucky institutions and organisations have such a rich history of caring for employees that it takes decades of brash 'beanization' to destroy their culture (reread the remarkable story of Sir Dorab Tata in an earlier column). 15
Despite all these retardants, the day finally arrives when the thousand cost cuts are succeeded by terminal chops – sedated for the non-precariat with some form of VRSopiate. Individuals who escape the axe realize there is no form of performance, conformity or bonding that can insure them against meeting the same fate. One bean is as good as another and loyalties have no place at such a canine feast. If one doesn’t jump ship when there is another craft conveniently near, one may be forced to walk the plank when only the sea surrounds.
It is the combination of being treated like a commodity, being laughed at for being loyal and seeing the monetary and tenure consequences of remaining rooted that loosen and finally break bonds of positive affect. Phenomena like the great resignation (which also requires some external factors to be aligned) are among the end consequences of these ties willfully weakened by corporates over years. And that’s not the worst that can happen. When jumping ship is not feasible (as it frequently isn’t for the blue-collar workforce) negative emotions generated by beandealings accumulate and can bring on sabotage, violence and other forms of retaliatory behaviour. It is those who were the most devoted servitors who become the most implacable foes once the tie snaps.
It was entirely predictable, highly amusing and ultimately self-defeating to observe the exodus caused by the commodification of talent being countered by a typical commodity trader’s response: hiking prices. The personal interest the decision makers had in doing so also played no small part in the call they took (explained more fully in an earlier column that asked: 'But who will guard the guardians?')16. The price increase game is naturally one that every other trader plays and the net result not an increase in talent retention but cost. The only sustainable solution can be to reverse the commoditization of talent that has become virtually omnipresent and bring back bidirectional loyalty. The three steps to this end, in increasing order of potency and difficulty are.
HCF to LCM: An earlier column dealt with the importance of and need to move from the HCF (Hire-Compensate-Fire) way of managing people to the LCM (Lead-Care-Motivate) method.17 Obvious as this answer may seem, it will take some time for firms to be able to deal with business fluctuations without resorting to retrenching the people in the trenches. What will take far, far longer will be for people to believe that LCM is not just a formula for good times, which will be jettisoned with the next batch of 'volunteered' retirees.
Sticky Happiness: After removing the HCF shears that threaten to cut loyalty bonds, comes the step of strengthening the ties. Just because loyalty doesn’t demand immediate returns, doesn’t mean we (at least the non-deities among us) can get by without providing any reciprocation for all time to come. The strongest and longest lasting bond-strengthening adhesive is aggregate people happiness.18 Its manna is least toxic and longest lasting if it is delivered through the enrichment and excitement of the job people do. 19
Voice that Matters: Listening to the voice of the employee is important and this column has emphasised it more than once.20 But does it really rank higher in the scale of difficulty relative to the previous two (not inconsiderable) demands? In the first place, speaking out is only possible if the bean bleed (particularly of the speaking beans) has been stanched. As Hirschman pointed out in his masterpiece, "the exit option can sharply reduce the probability that the voice option will be taken up widely and effectively. …[V]oice is likely to play an important role in organisations only on condition that exit is virtually ruled out… [Contra-wise] loyalty holds exit at bay and activates voice."21 The kind of voice that makes a loyalty bond virtually unbreakable, however, is one that emanates from the sense of ownership that is the concomitant of corporate democracy. Those two simple words imply a revolution that deserves at least a dedicated column.
Too tall an order? Remember, loyalty has not just moved from an anachronism to an attractive option. It is essential if companies are not to pay ever more cash for ever lower retention and commitment.