Overcoming the “Loyalty Bias”

Overcoming the “Loyalty Bias”


The other day I was reading an article on how the British came to rule India and the watershed Battle of Plassey, 1757. In school we have been introduced to the Battle of Plassey and are familiar with the story of how a superior army of the Nawab of Bengal was defeated by the British with the help of a turncoat general Mir Jaffer. The article proceeded to challenge the pillorying of Mir Jaffer as the Turncoat No. 1 by pointing out a few historical facts. The Nawab of Bengal was an unpopular ruler who heavily taxed his subjects and was tyrannical in his ways. The subjects wanted to be rid of him and, as was the wont of courtroom shenanigans in those times, so did many of the court nobles. Mir Jaffer found a perfect opportunity to do this with the help of the British. I cannot necessarily ascribe any altruistic motives to Mir Jaffer’s act but then this new perspective certainly made me question Mir Jaffer’s status as the national Turncoat no.1 as far as the British colonial hegemony was concerned. Did he act out of the calls of his conscience rather than pure selfish greed? Should we not dig deeper before we label a person as a disloyal betrayer?


Loyalty is a virtue. There are few people that will dispute this. Today, in organisations especially in the manufacturing sector, I still see a strong bias towards loyalty. Leaving an organisation and joining competition is frowned upon. Getting young talent from outside rather than promoting someone – even if not fit for the role and future scalability – is considered a disloyal act on the part of the leader towards the people who have been “loyal” to the company. Decisions on internal promotions many a times are influenced by loyalty rather than quality. How does this happen in a so-called meritocracy? What factors contribute to this “loyalty bias” which enables loyalty to trump quality? What can organisations do about this?


From childhood, all of us are conditioned to believe that loyalty is what differentiates a gentleman from a scoundrel. Whether the loyalty is to a sports team that you represent (note the latest Wriddhiman Saha saga where the player is branded a traitor to the state cricket organisation because he wanted to change his team due to his perception of being victimised) or to your family if you want to move away (even if you may be a victim of emotional abuse) or to your nation if you speak against its abominable living conditions (even if the cities and administrative apathy are slowly choking you to death). Childhood stories narrated to Baby Boomers often extolled the virtue of unquestioning loyalty. Our Confucian based societal structure also supported unstinting obedience – questioning any social norm was unacceptable and also disloyal. Without doubt, this strong conditioning is what most Baby Boomers carry as their strong value system to the current day.


If we look at the development trajectory of manufacturing “old economy” organisations and superimpose the career development of its leadership it shows that many top leadership roles today are occupied by Baby Boomers. It is top leadership that shapes the decision making and culture of an organisation and, no doubt, the strong conditioning of Baby Boomers towards a loyalty bias becomes evident. The role that conditioning plays in decision making is well documented. It is conditioning that wins over cognitive processes hands down. So many leaders, I have seen, especially in an Indian context struggle against the strong inertia of their conditioning.


What is required to counter this conditioning? It starts with awareness. Are today’s leaders aware that they operate with a “loyalty bias”? My observation is that many are not. They do not believe that this is a bias at all. The conditioning is so strong that it has transformed itself into a life sustaining value system that is in the realm of absoluteness. Interestingly, the agility of mind that is needed to increase of awareness first and then making the mind open to a different perspective is hard to get in leaders past the age of 50. Research has shown that as we age our physical as well as mental flexibility diminishes and unless we take active measures to retard this progression of mental rheumatism it will have spread its insidious tentacles in our consciousness to make us believe that our world view is the only one that is right as we have “experience”.  Leaders must challenge their stated positions and open their minds to the fallibility of their notions.


It is to be noted that start-ups and services sector organisations behave in completely different ways. Their young leadership is not necessarily hamstrung with strong conditioning on the subject of loyalty and they see consider employees moving to competition, to be a business reality rather than a matter of principle. Retention bonuses, joining bonuses etc. are therefore par for the course. An employee joining competition is not a matter of hurt pride tinged with a sense of betrayal but more of an occurrence that requires a stoic response with a focus on solution finding. This attitude brings these leaders and their organisations to the space of solution finding, quickly making them highly responsive in the fast changing business environment.


What can Senior leaders do to rid themselves of their constraining and, in some cases, even debilitating rigidity of thought?


A few practices that have worked for me:

Be aware – Practice Mindfulness. We go through life so often without really being present in the moment – savouring, experiencing all the subtle feelings, experiences that life offers to us every moment. Am I aware of the sensation of the bounce-back of the keyboard keys as I am typing this article? Am I fully cognisant of the feelings that this effort is evoking in me? In short, am I fully present? This ability to be mindful and aware can enrich our life immensely. Being mindful allows you to appreciate the other person’s point of view and also brings you to acceptance sooner, allowing you to respond thoughtfully rather than react instinctively with your innate bias.



Meditate. A practice that has helped me tremendously to come closer to this state of mindfulness is meditation. It is a practice that can be frustrating in the beginning but extremely fruitful as you persist. Meditation can help us be in touch with ourselves at our very core, thereby, helping us be aware of our conditioning and opening our minds to, in Osho’s words, the “new”.



Lead with vision and purpose. The millennial workforce is not conditioned to stick with a single employer or even to their jobs. Their loyalty is to their own lives’ purpose. As leaders, we need to create vision and purpose and lead our teams to that purpose. Having a clear purpose that they believe in, is what will motivate true loyalty.



Approach situations afresh. I was chatting with my twenty something daughters and was amazed to learn about the way their generation looks at relationships. This is a generation that is unburdened with my conditioning and hence approached each relationship with complete freshness – evaluating it at face value and not as “it should be”. I aspire to be a twenty something in this respect – to be able to see and evaluate situations and people with a fresh and unbiased perspective! In truth – “The Child is the father of the man”.



May we lead our teams with passion and purpose – valuing loyalty but not allowing it to blind and bias us as leaders!




Mr. Ashish Pradhan, President, Siegwerk Asia


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