Loyalty among employees is wearing thin. Several reports bear witness. In 1993, writer Ethan Winning conducted an informal study of employee satisfaction for his book "Labor Pains: Employer and Employee Rights and Obligations." Sixty-seven percent of the 121 employee respondents drawn from six industries reported that their sense of loyalty on the job decreased over a five-year period. Research in Britain by Sanders & Sidney, a London-based career management firm, shows similar results. Why? It could be that corporate leadership is undermining employee loyalty in a variety of ways.
There are serious ethical implications of this problem of shrinking loyalty. A disloyal workforce inspires employers to adopt ethically questionable practices. The American Management Association reported this year in a survey of 900 mid-sized and large member companies that 63 percent of companies are using surveillance or monitoring procedures that include listening in on phone calls, reading employees' e-mail and running spy cameras. What's more, one in four companies don't tell workers about the spying-and by law, they don't have to.
Employers' secret cameras, taping machines, e-mail audits and even undercover agents, violate the expectation of privacy that lies at the heart of American culture. Employers become instruments of coercive practices that Americans often associate with oppressive societies and despotic governments.
How have so many companies landed in this position? In part, through a misguided reaction to diminishing loyalty in the workplace. Surveillance treats the effect. To treat the cause, advocate that your company's managers lead the way in regaining employee loyalty.
What did the most effective managers you've known do to generate team loyalty?
In my experience, the home base of loyalty is honesty. Nine out of 10 employees interviewed told researchers James Kouzes and Barry Posner that truthfulness was at the center of the trust they placed in leaders who not only must be honest but also must be seen being honest in their own habits. If they demand an honest expense account from employees, they must submit honest expense accounts themselves. If they want employees to respect company property-for instance, using computers only for company business-they must respect company property themselves. And people must see them doing this.
Another value, near the top of the list, is holding a positive attitude even in tough times. A good manager is stalwart under pressure like a military commander who doesn't oscillate between the euphoria of victory and the bitterness of defeat. He or she stays the course with a positive attitude. Napoleon put it simply: "A leader is a dealer in hope."
A positive, hold-the-course sense carries people through bad times, and just as important, it keeps them from getting too cocky in good times. That's not easy to do on the job, or in life for that matter.
An additional activator of loyalty is providing your employees with encouragement and direction. I remember how much people wanted to please Grant Tinker at NBC. He had a way of inspiring them to do their best. People worked their hearts out simply to please him. It had to do with his upbeat personality. For him, nothing was so bad that he couldn't crack a joke about it, and nothing was so good that it couldn't be done a little better. One time, Gary David Goldberg, who wrote "Family Ties," handed Tinker a script. Grant looked it over and said something like, "This is good, but I can get this from any good writer. Go back and give me what only Gary David Goldberg can write." Goldberg told me that he floated out on air.
A twist on encouragement is investing trust downward. First, it sets a tone of trust throughout the organization. It's reciprocal: If I trust you, you're more likely to trust me. Second, downward trust can offer unforeseen compensations. And a company that doesn't look to its employees as creative thinkers may be throwing the next great idea out the window.
You, of course, know my former boss at NBC, Ralph Daniels, senior vice president for standards. He applied the attitude of respect downward in two ways. He looked to his employees for ideas and creative input. No pretense. It was a genuine belief in his people that, given adequate support, they could deliver their best work. Second, Daniels was always one to give employees plenty of credit. He never hogged the glory for himself. If someone else carried out an idea of his, he gave them full credit. People worshipped him for it.
When I think back, I remember Daniels' competence. Everyone recognized that he knew television and TV standards like nobody else. That was an unspoken truth, especially unspoken by Daniels. He never reminded you of what he knew. I believe that if you have to tell people you're good, maybe you aren't.
Can people ever be fully committed to an incompetent superior? When they come up with something really good, people have to know that the boss will correctly evaluate it. Moreover, they have to know that when the work falls short, the boss will be the first to note it honestly, to critique it objectively and to suggest how to improve it in practical ways.
Some of us have had bosses who are dynamic. Is that quality-often called charisma-essential to build loyalty? Or is it just window dressing?
Too much of the time people think of dynamism as Armani suits, a Tiger Woods smile and a flashy personality. Instead, I think it emerges from more solid traits like inspiration and vision. Again, the Kouzes and Posner study reported that seven-in-10 employees want leaders who can communicate their long-range goals and their sense of the future in words that stir emotions.
George Bush called it "the vision thing" and this may be the most difficult of the traits to cultivate. Bush feels that either a person has it or he or she doesn't, but I'm not sure I buy that. All of these traits, to one degree or another, can be developed, even the vision thing.
Sure, managers have to recognize how important it is for employees to have a clear and well-formed vision of the future. Vision becomes the polestar of the organization. Without it, leadership is incomplete and employees get lost in the ambiguity of the direction the company is taking them-if anywhere. Lack of vision can kill the spirit of good workers.
Make sure your company's managers understand their role.
Polls and headlines tell us that loyalty is wearing thin, but through strong leadership, a company can reverse or prevent the decline. And if it does, HR is much less likely to face a wide range of ethical dilemmas involving surveillance cameras and tough sanctions for monitoring employee behavior. In short, what should HR do to build worker respect and loyalty? It should start by advocating that all managers, including HR, adopt the following characteristics:
- Managers must be conspicuously honest-always.
- Managers should keep a positive attitude toward the mission and their people.
- Managers must provide encouragement and direction.
- Managers must be trusting.
- Managers should give plenty of credit.
- Managers should improve their skills.
- Managers must have a vision.
A small lapse of honesty, like a ripple in a pond, can spread throughout an organization. If a manager sidesteps the rules, he or she loses the moral authority to impose those rules on employees.
An old saying states that anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. The test comes when the winds pick up. Managers need to be a reliable source of stability, confidence and positive attitudes, especially in tough times.
Voltaire wrote that it's good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others. That may have worked for the Navy in the 1700s, but positive encouragement and inspiration of workers is more productive today than tactless threats and fear. Managers should inspire workers to do their best, support their efforts and give them the direction to focus their creativity.
Ronald Reagan used to say: "Trust everyone, but always cut the cards." No doubt managers will be deceived occasionally if they trust, but if they don't, they'll never lead. Managers need to trust their employees to come through for them-and they need to let the employees know they trust them.
Managers need to explain expectations, provide clear-minded evaluations of employees' work, give credit downward and report credit upward-and in writing. Throughout the '60s and '70s, the University of Alabama's legendary Coach "Bear" Bryant was a credit-giver. He would say to his team: "If anything goes bad, then I did it. If anything goes semi-good, then we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it."
It's skill, not strength, that grows loyalty. Managers should be knowledgeable, informed and competent. Harvey Mackay, the highest paid motivational speaker in America, has a speech coach critique his major seminars. Those who are the best, he says, are always improving.
Managers need to know what the destination is and have a plan for getting there. How can a person lead if he or she isn't up front and looking ahead? Like most people in business, we've served with those who, justly intent on making profits, still found ways to embody the values of honesty, optimism, encouragement, trust, credit-giving, competence and vision. In discovering that what works for people and what works for profits aren't mutually exclusive, these leaders, like Daniels and Grant, gave their companies a soul and an ethical foundation. It's time more corporate leaders do the same.
Workforce, October 1997, Vol. 76, No. 10, pp. 85-87.