Everyday Matters: The price of modern-day loyalty

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 13, 2021 - September 19, 2021.
Everyday Matters: The price of modern-day loyalty
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“If you want loyalty, get a dog!” — Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (1987)

Dear leaders (and aspirants), here’s a newsflash for you: “Loyalty is something you can buy!”

After experiencing three changes of prime ministers in as many years, the Malaysian people’s jury is no longer out. Their verdict is clear for all to see — loyalty, once the mark of the selfless, the noble at heart, is now a commodity for sale. There, I have said it, and there is no turning back. Extreme transactional leadership is de rigueur and we are the poorer for it.

As if to underline my hypothesis, a Malaysian politician I admire (there are not many that I actually do) recently berated his comrades who frequently changed sides depending on which direction the political winds blow, calling them (excuse my French) “political prostitutes”.

Now, I am not a connoisseur of what is prim and proper, but I dare say the right honourable gentleman hit the nail on the head this time. Loyalty in this day and age has material value.

An indictment of the world we live in? Maybe. But get this: No matter how much you pay for it, true loyalty is elusive. You can offer a big salary, handsome perks and a modicum of power and authority but, in the end, if you keep it all on the money level, you will soon realise that your “team” is there only for the power trips they enjoy and nothing more.

This game is played in giant football clubs, big businesses and, yes, in governments too. But here’s the thing: Football clubs, businesses and governments that pay for loyalty will soon realise that it is not permanent and that the grass is always greener on the other side.

We live in a fast-changing world. It is easier now to change your team or company or political party than before. Occupational mobility is so fluid that it is more important than ever to earn the trust of employees and engender home-grown loyalty. The human capital practitioners call it “growing your own timber”. As with anything organic, growing your own brand of loyalty requires patience and nurturing.

Your team members and employees are your most valued assets. Treat them as such — they ARE what makes your club, your company, your party. They wake up every day and religiously come to work. As their leader, you must continually motivate them, articulate your vision and signpost their progress.

At all times be inclusive, make them feel they are part of an achieving, world-beating team. There is nothing more fragile than a broken ego. Make them love the work they do. Then and only then can you organically grow loyalty for your organisation.

But, as always, some employees are beyond redemption. They do not mind how repetitive their tasks are. They never ask themselves whether there is a better way to do the things they do. They simply limit themselves to the task at hand. They never say no. They do not have the skills to get hired by other companies and are too lazy to look for another job. If you think these kinds of people can give more stability to your company, you are right. You will be so stable that you can forget growth and watch as your competitors leave you in their wake.

As with many shaky managements, club coaches, CEOs and party leaders often pick and promote subordinates based on loyalty (bought and home-grown) rather than competence. Mathematician Prof Vladimir Zakharov of the University of Arizona presented a formal model that shows some of the dynamics behind these decisions.

The math is complicated, but the intuition is straightforward: Incompetent team members are replaceable and unlikely to survive a regime change and are, therefore, fanatically loyal. They have to be. Their position is dependent entirely on the survival of the leader.

Competent team members, on the other hand, may be less likely to be loyal because they do not need to be. They can maintain their positions in spite of who the leader is because they are useful regardless.

They may, therefore, also be less willing to use their power and authority to benefit the leader at the expense of good policy. For a leader on tenterhooks, this means that competent people will pose a threat to their own power and reducing that threat may be more valuable to the leader than improving the organisation’s or government’s capacity.

But loyalty by itself is not worth much if you need your organisation to accomplish things. An organisation in which the leader cannot be questioned will manage just fine as long as the leader is never wrong about anything, never makes mistakes and never has to delegate authority or decision-making to any other team member. If you want team members who can manage tasks and solve problems, you must value competence.

To pull back a bit, one lesson to take from recent history is that competent people have options. This is true in the worlds of sports, business and politics. People who are good at their jobs can find work in other teams or organisations. As a leader, you need them more than they need you.

Competent people can be loyal, of course, but only to a leader who is worth being loyal to. Therefore, in order to gain the loyalty of competent people, a leader has to treat them like people with options.

As a leader, you can have all the loyal sycophants you want. The price for an organisation or a government filled with these types is incompetence.

Zakie Shariff is executive chairman of Kiarafics Sdn Bhd, a strategy consulting group. He is also adjunct professor at the Faculty of Industrial Management, Universiti Malaysia Pahang.

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