Some of you may have visited me already at The Coyote Within. You’ll know I try to think about work and business from a different perspective, so I’m extremely grateful to Leon for giving me the chance to add my thoughts to lifehack.org each Monday.

Sitting down to write this, my first posting for Leon, I imagined myself producing something light and humorous. It didn’t work like that. What I found myself focusing on was the dark side of loyalty, starting from the question: “Is loyalty to the boss and the company always admirable?”

In my career, I’ve experienced times when disloyalty was disruptive and killed any sense of trust. But I’ve also seen cases where too much unquestioning loyalty meant important issues were suppressed until it was too late. It’s made me wonder if open questioning of authority, short of defiance, may be essential if we’re not to lose our way. After all, the United States was created by people ready to fight my English ancestors for the right to live free from unquestioning loyalty to a sovereign.

Loyalty has long been valued by leaders. The more authoritarian and dogmatic the leader, the more they prize loyalty in their followers. Dictators — political and organizational — surround themselves with “yes-men,” eager to prove their loyalty by saying whatever the person in power will find most acceptable. Then the pressure to fit in and suppress unpleasant realities can be overwhelming. That loyalty stifles creativity and discourages people’s willingness to speak the truth about their leaders, themselves or their work. Competitors ought to cherish excessively loyal organizations, where no one is ready to rock the boat by pointing out how fast they’re becoming obsolete.

Getting the right balance between loyalty and initiative isn’t as simple as it sounds. Loyalty is good for comfort and support, but bad for promoting initiative and truth-telling. Organizations need people who support one another. They also need those ready to see with different — even “disloyal” — eyes and bring uncomfortable realities into the open. Without them, everyone gets fat, dumb and happy — until the dam breaks.

Ought loyalty to be prized more than curiosity and independent thought? Curiosity is uncomfortable. Skeptics make you mad when they challenge what you’ve come to believe and automatically rely on; especially in areas you don’t want looked at too closely.

Socrates, one of the world’s most revered philosophers, described himself as a “divine gadfly” sent to stir up his fellow citizens and shake them out of their complacency. They valued his efforts so much they had him executed for “corrupting the young” by teaching them to think for themselves.

If your unthinking assumptions are about to break under the pressure of change, shouldn’t you be thankful to those who draw them to your attention in time? What about the “disloyal” whistle-blowers who alert the public to hidden corruption and deceit? Aren’t they important and valuable people, often moved by a stronger sense of moral duty than the rest of us?

There is a way to reconcile loyalty with openness to uncomfortable truth. It’s based on exercising ethical choice. When people think through the ethics of trust, and the basis of their support for boss or employer, they can see where the balance lies between being honest (even if that involves dissent) and being disloyal.

In any culture that prizes loyalty above all else, fear becomes the major emotion: fear of doing or saying anything that might suggest dissension; fear of exercising individual freedom to think and speak. Sadly, some major commercial and political organizations seem not too far from producing exactly such a culture.

Few things in life are black-and-white, however much some people try to make them so. Failure to question received opinions quickly leads to ethical blindness. Unquestioning loyalty is no loyalty at all. Sometimes what the boss most needs is to hear the truth, before he or she says or does something that will bring harm o themselves and others. Our intellectual and personal freedom is too important to surrender it to help our masters shut themselves away from uncomfortable questioning.

Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his thoughts most days at The Coyote Within.

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