Betrayal is a recurring theme of my loyalty posts. I’ve talked about work like it’s a sinking ship, a burning theater, or a hike through tiger-infested grass. It’s pretty depressing stuff, isn’t it? Don’t you wish you could just do fulfilling work and not have to worry about all this treachery? Wouldn’t it be great if you could just be happy at your job without being paranoid? How would it feel to like your company and not have all this mistrust floating around?
Would it surprise you to find out that I am happy at my job, that I do fulfilling work, and actually like my employer? And that I am not, in point of fact, certifiably insane?
I said I was going to wait to talk about “good loyalty” versus “bad loyalty” until after I finished this series, but I realize now that I can’t put it off any longer. All this treachery and mistrust business is coming from getting our terms mixed up. We need to talk about what loyalty actually means. And then we need to see how it fits into a larger cycle of vulnerability and trust.
Let’s start with loyalty:
Giving or showing firm and constant support or allegiance to a person or institution.
I want to make this clear: Yes, you should be this kind of loyal to your company. I’m not happy with everything every employer or client of mine has done, but I don’t badmouth them during or after my engagements with them. Once I’m hired, I am hired. If I’m cashing a client’s paycheck, then I am very focused on helping them succeed. I don’t care about office drama. I want to get the product built and shipped and into the customer’s hands. I’ve worked W-2 jobs and 1099 jobs over the years, and my definition of loyalty doesn’t have to change. Firm and constant support.
I try to give that to the company, and I also try to give it to my coworkers. But when I do that, something very different happens.
Vulnerability and Trust
When two humans share loyalty, an interesting cycle begins.
- I open up a little bit and share a little bit of vulnerability with you.
- You respect that vulnerability by showing support and respect–loyalty.
- I feel I can trust you more, and open up a little bit more.
While I’m doing this, you are doing the same in return. It is in our shared moments of vulnerability and compassion that we find our truest happiness. This is part of being human. We need this. I show you vulnerability, loyalty and trust; you show me the same in return. All three emotions go in both directions.
Of course, sometimes we share too much, before trust has been earned, or the other person doesn’t honor the vulnerability that we’ve entrusted them with. When that happens, we feel shame and betrayal. I’m not telling you anything new here… at least not yet. But now try this: run that sequence backwards. If you’re feeling betrayed, it is because you were not given loyalty after you showed vulnerability. Make sense? Hold on to that thought, we’re going to come back to it.
This full cycle of vulnerability, loyaty and trust is what I’m talking about when I say that loyalty to a corporation doesn’t make sense. Allegiance and support is fine, but vulnerability and trust? We can’t have the cycle of vulnerability, loyalty, and trust with a corporation, because the corporation is incapable of reciprocating. But sometimes we want to feel that trust so much that we pretend that the company is participating. We cross a boundary we shouldn’t, and we pretend that the company is honoring it… and that’s where it all goes wrong.
Have you ever been laid off and felt a mild sense of professional annoyance, but mostly you were just sad to no longer be working with great teammates on a worthy project? That means you’ve got a good sense of boundaries.
But the Loyalty and Layoffs post is full of comments from people who have been laid off and feel betrayed. When Evans & Sutherland let me go out of the blue, even with all that severance, betrayed is exactly how I felt.
Huh. Feeling betrayed… how does that happen, again?
Loyalty Only Goes In One Direction
One of the things my friend Rodney taught me is that, in a corporation, loyalty only goes one way: up. You show your allegiance and support to your manager, she shows her allegiance and support to her boss, and so on, up the chain to the CEO.
Now, most of us have worked with great managers and leaders. People who go to the mat for us. These are fantastic people, and I highly recommend seeking them out and working for them whenever possible. But do they prove that loyalty also goes down? Think about this: what happens when their boss tells them they have to fire you?
They do their job.
To be sure, they absolutely hate their job that day. But they do it. Why? Because they’re loyal. And that loyalty, ultimately, only goes in one direction.
Trust Only Goes Goes In One Direction
When we show loyalty, we earn trust. So the corollary to loyalty only going up is simple: trust only goes down. Your CEO trusts your manager to be loyal, your manager trusts you to be loyal, and you… you trust the plant on your desk to keep on doing that photosynthesis thing.
Firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust anyone with anything. That’s a little bit crazy, and a whole lot of no fun. I’m just talking about the trust that loyalty earns. You can trust a good company to pay you, because it’s against the law if they don’t. You can trust a good manager to keep office politics away from you. But if you know loyalty does not come down, and that a company will act in its best interest even if it’s at your expense, then that trust, the specific “firm belief in the reliability” of your company, should not go up.
Vulnerability Doesn’t Go In Any Direction
In theory, vulnerability could go down. You show loyalty, the company shows trust; in theory your CEO could share vulnerability with your manager, and your manager could share vulnerability with you.
But they don’t, do they?
I’m not talking about friendships, here. I’ve shared plenty of vulnerability, trust and loyalty with managers as friends. But I can’t think of the last time a manager told me he was worried about getting laid off, or thinking about leaving to work for a competitor, or afraid the company might not make payroll next month.
I think they actually teach in MBA school that “complaints go up, never down.” No, wait, that’s a quote from Saving Private Ryan. But my point is, vulnerability could go down the chain… but it never ever does.
So what about up the chain?
Because the company does not show you loyalty, it cannot earn your trust. So the big question is: in spite of this, are you sharing vulnerability up the chain?
Susceptible to emotional or physical attack or harm.
If you’re afraid of losing your job because you have no idea where you’ll go or what you’ll do… maybe you’re letting yourself be “susceptible to harm”. There are two things you can do about it. The first is to continue to offer this vulnerability to your company, and pretend the company has reciprocated with loyalty, and feel the warm glow of trust that all will be well. You’ve crossed a boundary inappropriately, and the company probably doesn’t care. The only cost of this is that if the company lays you off, you will feel betrayed… and it’s not the company that will be paying that cost.
The other thing you can do is own your own career. You take back that vulnerability. Interestingly, when you do you, you suddenly realize that the company could fire you if it was in the company’s best interest. I mean, it always could, but once you take vulnerability off the table, it stops being a disaster and becomes just another thing that could maybe happen.
Take Vulnerability Off The Table
Once you accept the truth that your company can, and will, and should act in its own best interest, it’s easy to take vulnerability off the table. And then an interesting thing happens: you don’t have to take trust off the table. It evaporates on its own. You sort of realize that it was never there to begin with.
Loyalty goes up. Trust goes down. Vulnerability is something you save for those coworkers and friends who are willing to reciprocate.
You can not only be happy at a job with this arrangement, but happier than you would be otherwise. Owning your career means you have alternatives, and that means you have a choice. Suddenly there is more fulfilment in your work, because it’s work you choose. You get to feel the joy of personal growth. You have the confidence of knowing that, if you really had to, you could quit instead of putting up with an abusive boss.
And you have the peace of mind that, should you arrive at work to find a pink slip waiting for you, you’re going to feel a lot of things, but not betrayal. Not again, not ever.