Dorothy was right. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Sadly, we are not even over the rainbow! It’s amazing that the Wizard of Oz was so prescient, particularly when applied to a subject that has left man with many a sleepless night … the subject of loyalty.
Various dictionaries define loyalty as the state or quality of being loyal to commitments and obligations. It’s also about faithful adherence to a sovereign, power, government, leader, cause … etc. It is a word that enjoys many evocative synonyms such as fidelity, allegiance, fealty and devotion. Implicit to loyalty is the sentiment that it is unwavering, and that it is manifest in powerful concepts such as ‘extreme’ or ‘fierce’. It’s a notion that man has been aware of long before his or her awakening to religion. Clearly, it is no trivial matter and it runs deep.
Like so many other values and ideals that are undergoing massive change and/or tremendous stress, the concept of loyalty is also being tested. We’re observing it across all walks of life, and it’s not surprising that we also see it undergoing dramatic change in the work place. The workplace, like the rest of society, is starting to cluster on different ends of the spectrum. On one end, the old-school workers whose view is that loyalty is no longer what it used to be, what with the younger generation no longer demonstrating adherence to this value and jumping ship at the first sign of opportunity or trouble. On the other end, we have the younger generation whose notion of loyalty is neither seen nor judged through the prism of their elders, and whose manifestation of it is to protect the self and self-interest.
So who’s right, and who’s wrong? Is there a singular standard by which to measure loyalty? These are legitimate questions, and – heaven knows, they often weigh heavy on me. It is naïve to expect we will all rally around one view of the subject. It is perhaps wiser to consider that, today, loyalty is subject to the pull of multiple forces singularly or collectively determining where different people sit on its spectrum.
It goes without saying we live in a world where power is mutating (The Mutation of Power, October 13, 2014) and traditional structures are altering beyond recognition. Weberian top-down command-and-control systems are being challenged and undergoing fundamental change. This is throwing millions into disarray, causing much disorientation and testing personal values. At times like these, the absoluteness of loyalty will be questioned and people will no longer feel it is taboo to examine it, and redefine it differently from what we have grown up with.
Let’s not forget that the focus of power is shifting from the top to the bottom. Along the way ‘top-down’ communicated notions will not escape scrutiny. This is especially true at a time when the traditional benefits we’ve always associated with loyalty such as protection, prosperity, reward and progress become difficult to reconcile with what organisations are able to provide to their people. Not forgetting our daily needs and future aspirations.
The second force to exert gravitational pull on loyalty is happiness. Despite so much research and attention, the jury is still out amongst both psychologists and biologists on what causes happiness and how to measure it. The argument is diverse and rich. In “Sapiens” A Brief History of HumanKind, Yuval Noah Harari devotes an entire comprehensive chapter dissecting happiness and some of his conclusions are simply eye- opening.
One view is that “… the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations. If you want a bullock-cart and get a bullock-cart, you are content. If you want a brand new Ferrari and get only a second-hand Fiat you feel deprived. …When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied. When things deteriorate, expectations shrink …”
The other view is one forwarded by biologist, who according to Harari, argue that “(happiness) is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin … People are made happy by one thing and one thing only- pleasant sensations in their bodies.”
Whether we evaluate happiness subjectively or take a biological view of the matter, loyalty will be heavily influenced by a desire for upward mobility. The kick we get from that end result, which delivers an improved subjective view of our own self-worth, and the rush of pleasantness through our bodies- no matter how short-lived it is. Today, psychology and biology are converging to dislodge the long-held view that loyalty is unshakeable.
The last force to exert pull is cultural and local context. This will either act as a brake or an accelerator. Its power will emanate from how traditional and how deep sentiments run towards loyalty. Are we looking at loyalty through the lens of a tribal or feudal closely-knit society, where the community’s opinion of one’s behaviour ranks high, and the community is small enough for its will to be enforced? Or are we actually viewing the notion through a modern lens where pursuing prosperity is an endeavour that has to be chased with all one’s might? Is this perhaps the only motivation powerful enough to sway one’s loyalty, especially in a stalled economy?
When sifted through these three filters, it is clear that the traditional understanding and practice of loyalty is going to be heavily contested and challenged. One could be forgiven for thinking that loyalty will fall by the wayside, though my view is that this is too dramatic a conclusion and that man’s value-system (despite much proof to the contrary) runs much deeper than we may give him or her credit for. At the same time, there is a simple conclusion, which is that we cannot take loyalty for granted and assume that it is an impenetrable fortress whose walls cannot be scaled.
Like all values, loyalty needs to be vindicated if it is to survive. This doesn’t mean that it will be, or should be, rewarded all the time. It does mean that it should not be foolishly or ignorantly tested – loyalty should not be pushed to fail. Ultimately, Dorothy is indeed right; we are not in Kansas anymore.