What is the most dangerous force in american business today? An excess of loyalty. Most executives, of course, place loyalty right up there with hard work and creativity on the list of cherished values. But what does loyalty mean? That your staffers are totally committed to you and your vision? That they'll make decisions as if it were their money on the line? That they won't defect to the competition or snatch your clients and go out on their own? Every business owner, needless to say, wants employees who share these values. But are they really examples of loyalty? To me, such traits are markers of trust. And while trust and loyalty may be related, they are not the same thing.
In my experience, when businesspeople talk about loyal employees, they're talking about team players who will implement decisions with little or no challenge. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. But what too often happens is that CEOs surround themselves with sycophants, constructing echo chambers of agreement. Loyalty becomes a code word for intellectual servitude, what I call an "obedience culture."
In obedience cultures, loyalty determines everything: who gets promoted, who gets access to the inner circle, who gets raises, and who wields authority. True, an obedience-based workplace can be extremely efficient -- it's a lot easier to get things done when people know their marching orders and debate is kept to a minimum. But obedience cultures suppress ideas. They turn staff meetings into elaborately staged agreement sessions and quash opportunities for improvement.
The problem with obedience cultures is that they can creep up on you. Take my company. I've always thought of it as a place that values bold, new ideas and encourages muscular debate. Then not long ago, I found myself interviewing someone for a key position. The candidate was talented and experienced; I liked him and so did other people in the company. But in one of our conversations, I asked the candidate to take me through some examples of his work. When I challenged some of the decisions he had made, he immediately defended himself -- without, it seemed to me, even considering my questions. He seemed resistant to give and take. That troubled me, and I decided not to hire him.
But looking back, I wonder if I wasn't promoting my own obedience culture. Was the problem really that the candidate was stubborn and uncooperative? Or did I fear that he would have been too independent and strong-willed -- not "loyal" enough? I'm still not sure of the answer.
The fact is, you don't have to be a bad person to create an obedience culture. Sometimes it just happens. Little by little, contentious employees with truly independent points of view leave and are replaced by people who are less "difficult." It's not hard to see why. Today's business environment is brutal. With new threats constantly emerging out of nowhere, who doesn't want to be surrounded -- and protected -- by his or her own Republican Guard?
Unfortunately, such protection is illusory at best. You'd be better served by encouraging behavior that many people would consider to be disloyal. You want people to tell you what you don't want to hear -- the truth the way it looks first thing in the morning, without lip gloss or mascara. And pulling that off requires not loyalty but trust.
Creating a culture that recognizes the difference between the two is not easy. It requires a thick skin and a tolerance for a certain amount of messiness. But it's worth the mess. All CEOs complain about employee turnover. I believe that most people bolt because they are unwilling to work in an obedience culture -- not because they're tempted by an offer from across the street. It's time we bosses replaced the warm bath of loyalty with the cold shower of trust. It goes both ways: Your employees need to trust you enough to be honest and you need to trust them enough to listen.
Adam Hanft is founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited, a Manhattan-based consulting, advertising, and publishing firm.
Read more from Adam Hanft in the Marketing Resource Center at www.inc.com/keyword/hanft.