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Loyalty Is Overrated

Why loyalty's benefits are often outweighed by its liabilities.

Google, CC 4.0
Source: Google, CC 4.0

Most of us consider loyalty a desirable trait. If you're the beneficiary of loyalty, it's comforting to know that even a serious error or two won't get you fired or your relationship ended. If you're the bestower of loyalty, it feels good to be able count on someone and not have to think about replacing him or her.

But loyalty is overrated.

1. Loyalty encourages complacency. True, some people will behave well even if there's no accountability. But we all know of people who, because they have job security, don't work diligently. Similarly, the marriage knot being hard to untie can lead to complacency as evidenced, for example, by this: All married couples, before an officiant, family, friends, and perhaps God, swore to be loyal for life. Yet many have affairs and half divorce, often claiming "That isn't the person I married," and often tearing each other apart over an armoire.

2. Loyalty is inferior to whistleblowing. Many politicians and other leaders proudly assert that they look for loyalty in their advisors. Too often that means advisors who won't rat them out. As Lyndon Johnson's vice president Hubert Humphrey said, "You are (the president's) choice in a political marriage and he expects your absolute loyalty." Aren't we better off with a vice president who is loyal only as long as it's in the country's best interest?

3. People change. A monogamous partner could decide it's time to play around. An employee could decide, "I'm tired of being responsible. I want to slack." In such circumstances, should loyalty always be prioritized?

4. Situations change: A sense of loyalty often keeps employers from replacing a person who—all things considered—should be replaced. For example, a physician client of mine had an office manager who was with him for 15 years. She's kind, trustworthy and loyal—She would never leave for another employer. But managing a medical practice has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. Today, the job is much more demanding because of all the insurance and government paperwork and the need to respond to denials of coverage. Making the job even more difficult, that doctor, like many, had to increase patient load to compensate for the declining Medicare, MediCal, and insurance payments as well as increased costs of malpractice insurance, government mandated regulations and employee benefits. So the office manager was now over her head, couldn't or wouldn't learn the new computer programs, but didn't want to quit. Patient appointments got screwed up as did the patient and doctor reimbursements. His income, which for the aforementioned reasons had already declined badly—and he was still paying back his medical school loans—took an additional hit because of her lapses. Because of loyalty, he first tried hiring an assistant for her but that wasn't close to enough. He saw that the assistant could do much more, more quickly. So finally, he gently let the office manager go, with a good severance package. In terms of cosmic justice, would it have been wiser for him to remain loyal to her?

The Takeaway

Of course, loyalty has benefits but also underdiscussed liabilities. This article's takeaway is to remind you to consider both.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th is The Best of Marty Nemko.