Loyalty, Trust and Morality


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

Loyalty is a group concept. Groups evolve styles of interacting and behavior which are judged as acceptable and “our way” of doing things.  Adhering to these usually informal rules – not formally codified – is seen as evidence you’re one of us and therefore, acceptable. Behaving in these ways which means following the groups rules of style is also perceived as evidence of commitment. And commitment is judged to be evidence of loyalty to the group and its mission.

Trust is a judgment about the perceived veracity and dependability of an individual. Do their words and actions meld? Is their word their bond? Could a handshake seal a deal?

But individuals are also members of groups and they may trust or mistrust the group. How can we reconcile these two facts? Most of the time members of groups identify individuals within the group as representative of the group, i.e. at work, people’s managers become a representative of the organization; the president stands for the administration.

Loyalty is primarily a judgment by a group of how well people adhere to the group’s rules, especially those that are informal and don’t become part of a formal code like the Marines Semper Fi, no one is ever left behind which also stands for the unstated, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

It is much easier to learn the unstated rules if you have already been accepted by the group because you will naturally become close to some people and even if they don’t verbalize what they’re doing and why, you will see the choices they take and those they reject. Marines, for example, may pummel each other with cutting insults but no outsider can without harsh repercussions from Marines. When people naturally and easily Fit In to the group, they’re accepted as being understood without explanation. When people are judged as being one of us, they are seen as loyal.

When people don’t naturally and easily Fit In, their path to acceptance is strewn with invisible traps: people are less willing to work with them or hang out with them because understanding of where they’re coming from, of what their values or goals are, cannot be assumed as known. This seriously impedes their receiving any kind of support from the rest of the group which increases the possibilities of failure in performance and failure as a team member.

It should be noted there is a potential down side to Fitting In: When Fitting In is an important variable in terms of being selected for inclusion and the recipient of the support that increases success; there is a likelihood of Group Think which is deadly in terms of eliminating and chance of significant innovation. Suggestions for change, for doing things differently are always implicit criticism of the status quo. No wonder organizations in trouble usually seek to bring in “new blood” rather than promote from within. “New blood” has a very brief and difficult period in which they can earn respect and acceptance from the group and Fit In while being different in some important ways from the group.

We know people have to earn respect and trust; we rarely think about the fact that loyalty also must be earned because without loyalty, there’s no commitment to the group or the mission.

Interestingly, outsiders, the “New Blood” people, probably have an easier time being accepted as innovators or change agents because, by definition, they’re outsiders. Becoming a successful outsider means you have been honed by the hard times of resistance to you and your ideas simply because You’re not one of us. A marvelous example of an outsider who achieved greatness is Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female party leader and the power who led Parliament to vote down the high tax social democratic government and rein in the unions and were holding Britain hostage.

The informal rules are significantly variable across the bell curve, i.e. the norms in a traditional utility in comparison with those of a Silicon Valley start-up. In the former, power is distributed vertically and overt disagreement can be seen as disloyalty. In the latter, power is both vertical and horizontal, the latter reflecting the power of expertise. In this case, overt disagreement is perceived as constructive, as moving toward better answers. The tension between these two positions is seen clearly in large utility companies in which the old utility and its many rules and culture of Entitlement often despise and can be envious of the start-ups within the utility holding company which are modeled after the Silicon Valley organizations.

The point is, organization’s cultures and values vary widely. Therefore, what can be perceived and interpreted as signs of loyalty can take very different forms in different organizations and under different circumstances, and leadership.

Trust is primarily a judgment about ethics; about right and wrong. Forgetting for the moment the extent to which corrupt societies see “immoral” behavior as normal and therefore righteous… Rules of right and wrong are close to universal norms of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and closely follow the rules of religion, i.e. the 10 commandments. As an abstraction, ethics are not relative: we do not murder, cheat or steal though we could covet a bit…


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