Does Employee Loyalty Still Matter?

office-building-v-1056893A number of years ago I worked alongside a woman who had spent her entire career with one company. The company had undergone numerous changes over the years, changing names, acquiring and being acquired, even transitioning industries. The company provided her with a pretty good career, and by this time she had her retirement clock setting on her desk, counting down her final days with the organization. A perfect example of the working world I had learned about as a child.

But even my parents, who were taught to aspire to this, didn’t manage it. My father changed jobs for advancement, and was forced to change jobs through programs ending and companies failing. By the time I entered the workforce, the employment world was well into the big transition from company-based careers to capability-based careers. And now we’re seeing the results – including at the extreme end the newly named “gig economy”.  Which raises the question: Do you owe any loyalty to your employer? If so, how much? What does loyalty even mean these days?

When workers built their careers around a single company, loyalty was an important component. Companies expected their workers to be loyal to the company – that their efforts, opinions, and decisions aligned with the goals of the organization. In return, workers anticipated full employment, with advancement opportunities, preference over outside workers, and retirement security. As we learn to navigate this more fluid career environment, this definition of loyalty no longer works. Companies often try to be lean and agile, poised to react to economic realities, and many believe that they can’t afford to make long term commitments to their workers; Workers recognize that their career success depends solely on their own efforts and that their security and advancement are in their own hands. But loyalty is still an important value. It is one of the characteristics of leaders that people value the most. So what does loyalty mean now?

The primary dynamic in our current labor environment is a buyer/seller modality. Even if you are an employee, it is still a business transaction. While in previous generations there was a certain paternalism to the employer/employee relationship, that is no longer the case. You are “selling” your expertise, your labor, your time, and your creativity to the organization. They are buying from you results that they need to maintain their commitments to their customers and constituencies. That’s it. So no matter what you do for a living, you are a business owner. The business is you. So the basis of the relationship with your organization is the same as with your customers – a shared understanding of what will be provided, and what shall be received in return. Loyalty is now to the shared goal, rather than to the organization as a whole. Loyalty means that each party is in agreement as to what is expected, and commits to fulfilling the agreement to the best of their ability, and keeping the best interest of the other party as a primary force in any decision making. So you do you owe any loyalty to your employer?

Yes.

Loyalty is an important part of being ethical, authentic, and fair. Being loyal is critical to maintaining your reputation, which in this new employment world is one of the most valuable assets you possess. So how do you remain loyal while advancing your career?

Understand the boundaries of the employer / employee relationship. While it is no longer a life commitment, it is a commitment. You commit to conduct yourself with the utmost professionalism while doing the best work you can for your employer/customer while you are in the relationship. This means not conducting side hustles on company time, not undermining the company in any way, and doing just enough not to get fired. However, it also means that you are an equal part of this transaction, and are free to dissolve the relationship in a professional, appropriate way.  Think of your employment like a contract, with both parties having responsibilities and gaining value.

Treat your employment as if you were a company and your employer was your customer.  Make sure that you know what the organization is expecting you to do, and make sure you have the ability and resources to do it. Training and learning new skills is your responsibility, although the organization may contribute. Be honest about what you can and can’t do. You can certainly take on new challenges, but you should make sure that any commitments you make can be met. Integrity is a critical part of the loyalty you owe your customers. Actively seek out feedback to validate that you are performing to what is expected, and to confirm that you are meeting your commitment to the organization. On the flip side, while you owe the company the work you have signed on to provide, you don’t owe the company your life, your family, or your future.

Put your career before the organization. This is when I often get pushback, but this is a good thing rather than a bad thing. Often, in order to advance in your career, you must change organizations as well as positions. When you conduct your professional life as a business, you must balance the needs of your “customers” with the healthy growth of your “business”. This means being fair and honest with your employers, staying with your commitments long enough to create value, and providing sufficient notice and effective transitions when you choose to leave for a new opportunity. Taking responsibility for your career, and not relying on the organization to do it for you, actually makes you a better employee. You are now responsible for your growth, motivation, and performance. This makes you more, not less, attractive as an employee.

I hear so many people mourn the loss of the lifetime employment culture. But there is a silver lining. Meet your employer on equal standing – So don’t feel like a traitor, or a failure, when you decide to leave your employer to find a better opportunity. It’s just a business transaction. If you do it right, you leave on good terms, and you add to your network of connections. It’s through these connections that you build your unique, customized just for you, successful career.

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Examine Your Biases for Better Communication

What we believe 2One morning, I was at the dentist having my teeth cleaned. It was shortly after Nelson Mandela died, and his life and death was naturally a topic of conversation everywhere. The hygienist was chatting away, and when she brought up Mr. Mandela’s death, her comment was one I wasn’t expecting at all.  She said that she thought that he probably had lots of dental problems, being in prison all those years. It probably caused him pain, and it may have contributed to his death.

My jaw would have dropped open if it hadn’t already been open as wide as it would go. To be brutally honest, my first reaction was something like WTF. That had to be the most bizarre thing I had ever heard. But then something funny happened. It stuck with me not only all day, but for all these years since. Once her statement had marinated in my brain for a while, I realized what a fantastic example of how our biases influence how we see the world. As someone who studies dental disease, and its effects on overall health, including heart disease, it made sense that this was the window through which she saw the world. Ever since then I began to see biases everywhere, and to be more sensitive about how our unique and personal points of view impact not only how we see the world, but also how others see the same actions and events.

When discussing biases, the first reaction I get is usually defensive. People immediately focus on negative biases, and defend themselves against having them. Racism, sexism, ageism, and so on are so much a part of our history that nearly everyone immediately assumes that I am accusing them of negative behaviors. While nothing can be further from the truth, these extreme examples can be a useful starting point in discussing how more innocuous biases influence our understanding of the world. You can’t really eliminate these biases, so instead it’s important to understand your own biases so that you can be sensitive to their impact on your discussions and decisions.

Some biases help us make sense of information. In this hyper-connected information age world, you have access to more information than your brain can manage.  Some of your biases provide context to the information you receive. These biases are built from experiences and beliefs about the world. For example, how is it possible that two educated, well-meaning people can read the same set of facts and statistics, yet come to drastically different conclusions? It happens in politics all the time. If a colleague disagrees with you, is he stupid and uninformed, or does he see the same information differently than you do?

Some biases help us make decisions. Just as so much information is available to us, the number of options available to us seems to increase every day. It is impossible for us to examine and build a case for every possible decision, so our biases step in to lighten the load. It can be as simple and innocuous as liking blue but hating green. Great – when shopping for a new coat, don’t even look at the green ones, and focus on the blue ones first. Easy. But what if you prefer northern accents to southern ones, or prefer extroverts to introverts? Yes, it would make choosing between job applicants “easier”, but it would also not only limit your acceptable applicant pool, but could get you sued, or worse. So while biases can help us make decisions, we need to understand this mechanism, and know when to counter it.

Some biases limit understanding. Communication is difficult under the best of circumstances. Factor in that each person is coming into the exchange with their own unique basket of biases, and it is sometimes a wonder that we understand each other at all. You would think that looking for people with similar biases as you would improve communication, but sometimes it has the opposite effect. Instead of a meaningful exchange of information, it becomes an echo chamber where you only hear and understand information you already have and understand. No learning or growth takes place. Instead, real communication comes from accepting that everyone has biases, and by really listening, asking probing questions, and challenging the assumptions that are rooted in your own biases, can you learn new information.

The biases themselves are not necessarily evil or good. They are a component of each individual self, part of what makes us unique, and human. How you act on your biases, however, makes all the difference. Some biases are benign, and worthy of understanding. Some, however, can do harm – to yourself and others, and are worth overcoming. Either way, it starts with identifying and acknowledging any biases you have, and mastering them. If you control your own biases, you can let them help you and prevent them from hurting.

Stop Worrying About What Other People Think About You

quotescover-JPG-57How much time do you spend each day wondering what someone else thinks about you?

Not about your work, but about you?

You want to do work that is successful, effective, and meaningful. So it follows that it is important that you understand what your customers and colleagues need, want, and use. You want to make certain that your work meets their needs and expectations. Spending time understanding what your stakeholders think about your work can lead you to a better product, a more meaningful result, and a more successful outcome.

Does it then follow that time spend wondering what people think about you will make you more effective, more successful, and your life more meaningful?

You can ascertain what your stakeholders’ thoughts are by asking them; you can understand their needs by observing their work, and conducting research. But how do you know what they think of you? I guess you could ask them, but would they want to answer honestly? The fact is, if you asked me, I wouldn’t even know how to respond.

The secret is, when we imaging what others think of us, we are projecting our deepest issues onto others. These “others” become surrogates for our fears, our insecurities, and our perceived limitations. It’s not surprising that the public speaking is the most reported fear people have. When I work with people wanting to improve their speaking, I ask about what they fear. It mostly comes down to feeling that they will be judged inadequate, not expert enough, or not interesting enough. They assume everyone is judging them against an imagined “ideal speaker”. But the truth is, people in the audience have a vested interested in having you be a successful speaker. They are rooting for you. They want you to do well, and will actually confer expert status on you just for getting up to speak!

Understanding what the audience wants from the presentation will make you a more successful speaker, while imagining what the audience members think of you, actually makes you a less successful speaker, not a more successful one. This is true in so many areas of life.

Consider imposter syndrome. “If people really knew me, they wouldn’t give me this job, wouldn’t respect my opinion, wouldn’t buy my product”. Have you ever felt the pull of imposter syndrome at some time in your career? It’s yet another example of how much energy we lose worrying about what others think of us. Have you ever considered the math? Try to add up how much time and energy it would take for everyone you know to spend time considering all abilities and opinions of everyone they know? No one would ever get anything done! How much time do you spend thinking how incompetent and unworthy all of your colleagues are? Not very much, I hope.

As hard as it is to remember, know this. All the negative thoughts you imagine are coming from others, are just reflection of your own insecurities. Take action anyway – you are worthy, you are talented, and you will do great work. And remember, the person sitting next to you?  Be kind – they are probably busy worrying what you think of them.