When is Loyalty a Disadvantage for Change Leaders?

When is Loyalty a Disadvantage for Change Leaders? 
by Edith Onderick-Harvey & James Harvey 


When it’s the wrong type of loyalty.

We’ve talked in the past about the importance of building trust in leading change efforts.  Change creates discomfort and disruption to the way people do things and how they interact with others – sometimes in profound ways.  In short, it puts a strain on relationships, and therefore, on loyalty. And what does a leader under pressure to manage a significant change often do, almost reflexively?  They try to leverage the loyalty of others.

There’s good news and bad news in this.   Here’s the good news.  The right kind of loyalty provides a solid foundation for the trust and leadership people are looking for from others during challenging situations.  It makes it easier for a leader to convey the value of the change and enlist others in making it happen.

The bad news?  It’s all too easy to misunderstand the nature of loyalty or to disregard the consequences of “fake loyalty.”  You risk building a house of cards that falls apart under the high stakes and duress that change often brings.

You want to build the kind of solid relationships that allow you and your management team to build long-term change agility into your organization’s DNA.  You want to avoid:

  • Blind loyalty.  This is based on the premise that an idea or argument is right simply because it comes from someone who is in a position of leadership or iinfluence. But great ideas come from robust conversation and differing perspectives.  Blind loyalty doesn’t question. And blind loyalists simply execute the plan.  Don’t count on them to take a lot of initiative to uncover or find solutions to problems that inevitably pop up.
  • Forced loyalty. If someone is demanding loyalty, it is given out of compliance and fear. Forced loyalty may look like engagement to an outsider but it’s not. Underneath the surface is resentment and anxiety.
  • Favor-seeking loyalty. This individual laughs at even your worst jokes and is often way too eager to support your ideas – even the ones you’re not too sure of yourself.  It isn’t about the team or the larger vision. It’s about being rewarded for being a favorite. This type of loyalty is toxic to the team. People recognize what’s happening.  It often creates distrust, jealousy and behaviors that undermine rather than elevate.
  • Conflict-avoidant loyalty. Some people go along to get along.  They always do what’s asked (i.e., they’re loyal) because even modest amounts of conflict make them very uncomfortable.
Loyalty naturally feels good.  Even “fake loyalty” does.  And in the short run, it can have its uses.  But in the long run, it erodes the very relationships you need in order to thrive in a changing environment.   At the very least you can end up surrounded by “yes men.”  There’s an old business adage: if two people always agree, one of you is unnecessary.

When you are a leader implementing change, ask yourself: how do I create buy-in and enhance loyalty? Have you and the organization helped people move through the change curve or have you tried to go from awareness to commitment in one giant step?  We work with leaders every day to create loyalty and move people through the change curve. Read about one of our client’s results.

Leading Change

Over the past several years, this saying and many others about change have become trite. “Change is everywhere and to be successful you must embrace it.” “Change is the new normal.” “Champions eat change for breakfast.” You’ve heard it all before.

What is somewhat new about change is the sheer pace of it. With the advent of breakneck technology advances, change is not only constant but accelerating. Every few months a new social media outlet comes along that can help you reach your customers while you’re still trying to figure out Twitter. In other cases, some businesses are wondering if they should create an app for their services. Messages travel throughout your company, not to mention the world, in nanoseconds. Besides keeping up with all the technology, there are still the normal business changes like new product introductions, reorganizations, and new workflows. What do you have to know and how should you take a leadership position around change in today’s workplace?

  • Answer the big question, “Why?”: People yearn for context. They want to understand why things happen and how they fit into that equation. As things move ever more quickly, we often forget to answer this simple question of why (is this important, is this necessary, does this impact my business, etc.) in our haste to just get things done.
  • Listen to the reactions. Sometimes we think that in order to lead change, we need to be the cheerleader, playing down the realities that change is hard and there will be bumps along the way. We become better leaders when we take the time to listen and to respond in a realistic way to the reactions people have to what’s going on around them, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. In some situations it’s okay to say, “Yes, this stinks and at times it is going to be difficult. When we get through this, here is how we will be in a better place…” In other situations it’s okay to say, “No, that isn’t as good an option as it looks on the surface, and here’s why…”
  • Understand that some people will be more ready to change than you. When it comes to introducing technological change, there are people in your organization who will be asking why the company isn’t moving more quickly, or they may not ask, but their actions show they want to move faster. We have a whole generation who have grown up with Instant Messaging (IM), texting, Facebook, and other forms of social media. They’re comfortable with the fast pace of change technology has taught them. Harness their enthusiasm to learn all they can about the benefits and the drawbacks of various technologies. Engage them in understanding how a change could be used in your business or, just as importantly, why your business isn’t ready for whatever the change is.
  • Be a storyteller. Think back to your childhood. I could mention something about a story you haven’t heard in thirty years and you could probably tell most, if not all, of the story to me. If I asked you to explain freshman algebra concepts to me, that would probably be more of a challenge (at least it would be for me). We are wired to remember stories. They help us relate to concepts and ideas by putting ourselves in situations and thus remember information better. Tell your people stories about the successes of previous changes where first there were doubts. Tell stories about how a team worked together to make something happen. Tell stories that help people paint a picture, create a vision, and understand how to move forward to accomplish change.
  • Use social media. More and more organizations are using social media as way for people within the company to communicate with each other. Use social media yourself to ask questions, share updates, talk about successes, and ask for ideas. Encourage your team to use it as a way to have a productive conversation about the changes that are occurring . Soon you’ll see leaders emerge on your team, taking the reins of championing change. Again, if you need help in this area, there are people in your organization who are social media savvy.

Change and Keeping the End in Mind


Trying to promote change and innovation? Keep the end in mind with a robust, vivid, compelling vision that you keep front and center. It can unleash innovation and be a touchstone, barometer and guide for what and how things get done.

When you have a robust vision of the future, it opens up possibilities. Rather than closing down options, it can allow for change and innovation. With a robust and compelling vision, the focus becomes on achieving the vision — on moving forward — not just making the here and now more efficient or productive or less risky. It allows people to engage in creative thinking about how to get to that vision because ultimately there can be a wide variety of ways to achieve it. Without a vision:

  • people and organizations become overly focused on what and how things are done now
  • change represents uncertainty and as humans, we hate uncertainty
  • there is no gauge to measure a new idea, which makes the idea that much harder to justify pursuing

The vision provides a road map for how something new or different is, indeed, not leading us into uncertainty but closer to the ultimate destination.

And it’s important that the vision not just be a statement that hangs on the wall. It needs to serve as a tool to guide conversations, to help make decisions, to determine how resources are allocated and to promote debate.

How are your vision helping promote change and innovation?

Creating Silos


Is change breaking down your silos or creating more?  Here’s what we know about change.

  • Change creates feelings of uncertainty.
  • When we are uncertain, we don’t believe we have the answers, so we look for them elsewhere.
  • When looking elsewhere, we look to those sources and people we know and trust.
  • At work, that includes peers and leaders.
  • The peers and leaders we know best are those we work with most closely.

If this is the impact of uncertainty, what psychological incentive do you have to reach out of your comfort zone and breakdown the silos?  How do you encourage collaboration?

  • Create forums to meet people in the other silo(s). Earlier in my career, the bank I was working for acquired a competitor.  We were going to combine teams, bringing together two silos.  After the acquisition was finalized, we held a daylong meeting with the sole purpose of understanding what each member of the new team did and our approaches to our work.  After the meeting, we each had a far better understanding of who each person was and how we each worked. There was less uncertainty.
  • Find the common areas of uncertainty.  Talk about the elephant in the room.  The meeting I mentioned above reduced some areas of uncertainty and, honestly, created others.  What are we all unsure or unclear about?  During change we can feel that we want to be perceived as highly competent and in the know. Admitting we are uncertain about something requires vulnerability but it opens the door for real understanding.  Knowing others are going through the same experiences of uncertainty, especially because it feels negative, can create a sense of camaraderie.
  • Find or create the answers together.  Change can feel like it is happening to us and we have little control.  The reality is that we have significant control over how change is executed and how we interact with it.  If you don’t know something important, determine how you will find out.  Often, the way you’ll find or create the answers is by bringing others in, not shutting them out

Your Brain on Change

man on elephant

Those of us that are of a certain age probably remember the ad ‘this is your brain on drugs’ with the egg sizzling in a frying pan. A very effective visual. You can argue whether it was an effective campaign.

There is a visual I’ve been using recently to help explain the neuroscience of change. Jonathan Haidt originally talked about it in The Happiness Hypothesis and it was made famous by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch.

Picture a rider and an elephant going down a path. The rider is the rational, thinking part of your brain. The elephant is the emotional part of your brain. The emotional brain is far older evolutionarily than the thinking brain. It is so old that some people refer to it as the reptilian brain. This is the area of the brain that responds to the environment. When danger is perceived, it triggers the flight or fight response. It is here that you determine whether you will take on the ‘danger’ or flee from it.

Under normal circumstances, it is surprisingly easy for the rider to control the elephant. The rider can guide the elephant down the path and make it comply to his or her wishes. Now introduce change. The brain perceives change as a potential danger. Why? Because it is uncertain, something we can’t predict, something that we have less control of than our current situation. And, with this potential danger, the emotional brain takes over. Think of an emotional elephant. One trying to decide whether to fight or flee what it has encountered on the path. How easy is it for the rider to control that elephant? The rider needs to put the rational aside and work with the emotion.

So, when you’re leading change, you need to make sure you are communicating to both the rider and the elephant. The rider needs to talk about what is happening, what the timeframe is, how it will be implemented, etc. The elephant needs to talk about the fact that change can be difficult and scary, it needs to have its emotions recognized, it needs to have an opportunity to vent its concerns and to replace the negative emotions with positive ones that allow it to move forward. Once the emotions are part of the conversation, the rider and elephant can begin working together again.

Try Evolution Instead of a Resolution

gym-treadmill-people 240x160I went to the gym the other day and saw what you can count on every January — the results of resolutions. Anyone who is a gym regular knows that in January it’s a crowded place. People are there working up a sweat, moving muscles they haven’t moved in a while. It’s a place where people are making resolutions and, sometimes, deciding to break resolutions.

The problem with many resolutions is that they represent a radical departure from what we are currently doing. Rather than talking about resolutions, let’s talk about evolution. The evolution of your business. The evolution of your team. The evolution of your capacity to lead and manage others. We spend so much time talking about radical or transformational change, we forget about the benefits of purposeful, measured change. Spend some time this week thinking about what can evolve in the way you work, in the way your team works, and in the way your business works. What can you adapt to take advantages of the opportunities that are here today? What can you adapt to address the challenges of tomorrow?

How To Build An Agile Organization

change 228 x 202

i4cp defines agility as ‘the ability to move quickly, decisively, and effectively in anticipating and taking advantage of change.” The question is, how do you create this ability in your organization? According to i4cp and based on my own experience, high performing organizations instill agility by being prepared. That’s right. You manage change by anticipating, planning and taking advantage of it.

How can you make that happen?

    • Make it a regular practice to look outside the organization to see what may be just over the horizon. Most organizations only look as far as the trends within their industry. The best organizations look at the broader context. They look at other industries from which they can learn lessons. They look at societal, political and economic changes. Opportunities are often identified where on the surface, none may seem to exist. When people are mentally able to analyze, play with and explore potential change, they are more easily able to embrace it when it actually occurs.
    • Assess your organization’s capabilities in the context of those potential changes. Do you have the talent and resources you need to take advantage of what the future may hold? If not, how will you develop or gain those capabilities.
    • Determine how agile people are in your organization. Do you hire for it? Is agility an expectation? Is it rewarded?
    • Leverage what makes you successful now but don’t rely on it for your future. Often, success can reduce one’s ability to change. However, when success is paired with the expectations that change is part of success and that change will happen, starting from a position of strength can make change more powerful.

How many of these characteristics describe your organization?

Five Secrets of Great Change Leaders

Change LeadersAt one point or another in your career you will or have been asked to lead change. What does it take to be a great change leader?

  • You tell people why. Even if the current state of affairs isn’t great, it’s the one that feels comfortable. People need to be given a reason why to change. What the change is and how it will happen is good, helping me understand why is great.
  • You ask for help. Sometimes we think of a change leader as the person charging up the hill on the white horse and making things happen. They are the ones charging up the hill. However, he or she can’t be doing it alone. Great change leaders know you can’t do it alone and they ask for the help of others.
  • You plan well but you expect the change to change. You know that getting from here to there won’t necessarily go as planned, so you plan for unexpected twists and turns in the journey.
  • You communicate as transparently as possible and listen constantly. Great change leaders don’t just stand in front of large groups of people and give speeches. You listen to what other people have to say. You continually talk to people in a variety of settings and ways and make sure there are ways for people to respond, share ideas, find the blind spots, highlight the successes and discuss the failures. You don’t just share information, you share a part of yourself. You balance being strong with being vulnerable.
  • You love the journey. The great change leaders I’ve known really love the challenge of change. You love creating something new and better. You love getting people excited about the future and helping them believe that future can happen. You understand how difficult change can be but set high expectations because you believe it can and will happen. You love being able to look back and say, “We started over there and are now over here. Great work.”

What do you think it takes to be a great change leader?

The Future Leader

leadersI saw my in-laws recently and once again, I had a conversation with my father-in-law about how baffling new technology is to him and how he wants nothing to do with it.  Why?  Complexity.  There are too many options, too many things coming at you at one time and it changes too rapidly.

More and more the core of leadership is about the ability to understand and integrate complexity.  Let’s look at the world of work today:


  • Economic uncertainty persists. We are slowly moving out of recession but it’s still not clear how this economy is going to grow.
  • Breakneck technological advances. Facebook. Twitter. Ipad.  Need I say more.
  • Generational diversity. Four generations in the workplace with each bringing their own values and constructs about work, its place in our lives, and how it should be done.
  • Multiple work options. Full time. Part time. Contractors. Temporary.  Virtual.  Many working side by side under very different job arrangements.
  • We compete and collaborate globally. Our global economies are intertwined.  Populations in India and China are becoming more educated and wage equity is expected by the middle of this century.

What do leaders need to succeed in the complex world of work?

In this complexity, a leader needs to see the way forward for their organization and create an environment that leverages the opportunities brought by complexity.  As you develop future leaders, consider what our research points to as the five key abilities for successful future senior leaders.

  • The ability to foresee societal, political and industry trends. It’s not enough to know your industry or your business anymore.  Competition and innovation can come from anywhere.  The future leader needs to be a lifelong learner and insatiably curious about what is coming from a wide variety of sectors.
  • The ability to think strategically. The future leader needs to be able to integrate this information and ideas to create strategies that will lay a foundation for growth.
  • The ability to create and communicate a compelling vision and strategy. Compelling is the key word here. Future leaders will need to engage a more diverse and dispersed workforce than ever before.
  • The ability to manage talent. Ideas, innovation, great products and great service will come from the talent in the organization. It is your competitive advantage.  It needs to be identified, developed and built just like any other key asset you have.
  • The ability to create a culture of accountability. People want to be associated with excellence.  They want to know that strong performance is viewed differently than just punching the clock.


What To Do When A Senior Leader Leaves

Executive ExodusI’ve been hearing from some of you about changes that are occurring in your company.  A few people have talked to me about senior leaders leaving their organizations — their manager or the executive who leads the division, department, or group.  Anytime someone leaves a work group it’s disruptive to the group but when a senior leader leaves, the organizational shock waves can really knock you back.

When a senior leader leaves and you are a leader in the organization, you are in a difficult position.  You are trying to navigate this change yourself and trying to provide guidance and support for others.

It’s common when a senior leader leaves, that the organization and you as an individual:

  • Feel like the rudder has come off the boat. As much as we talk about shared leadership, there are special expectations of leaders at the top.  They are the ones who establish a vision or direction and guide the organization in pursuit of that vision.  Without that, we feel we’re in a boat without a rudder.
  • Aren’t sure what to do.  People start to ask “is this still important?” “I was in the middle of this big project, will it continue?” “What about…?
  • Wait for the other shoe to drop. Now that X has left, how soon will it be until others leave?
  • Wonder what that person knows that they don’t. People will often question why the person left and because the reason isn’t often public information, people fill in the blank with negative reasons.

You’re thinking these things and you’re pretty sure you’re people are, too.  How do you lead now?

  • Reiterate that, unless a new person has been put in the role already and made a significant announcement, the direction has not changed. Clients and customers still need what they needed yesterday.  The products or services you provide haven’t changed.  You work in the same locations.
  • Use the opportunity to solve challenges collaboratively. If the person who left was your direct boss and you now find that you don’t have a sounding board, find a colleague you trust and can collaborate with around ideas and solutions to problems.
  • Take the bull by the horns. This may be that opportunity to shine you’ve been looking for.  When the world seems to be falling apart, if you are able to keep yourself and those around you together, you’ll be remembered.  Review what your team is doing.  Assess what the priorities are.  Maintain focus and direction.
  • Open up the dialogue. Talk and listen to the people on your team and the people around you.  Listen to the anxiety and concerns they’ll have, no matter how outlandish they seem.  Assure your people that, as of right now, you are still pursuing certain projects,  your customers still have needs, and that the business is still functioning as it was.  Let them know that the situation will probably be fluid and dynamic for the foreseeable future and commit to sharing what you can as soon as you can.
  • Talk to the new or interim leader as soon as you can. Introduce yourself and let him or her know that you want to provide whatever support you can during the transition.  Ask what he or she plans for the next 60 – 90 days.  Help this individual learn about your team. Position yourself to be viewed in a very positive way.  Do great work and help your team do great work.
  • Prepare for what may be next. It’s no secret that new senior leaders often change the membership of their new leadership teams.  If you reported directly to the previous incumbent, be prudent and prepare for the possibility that you may find yourself in different circumstances when the new leader is done putting his or her team in place.  Dust off your resume.  Make sure your network is working.  Think about what your next move could be if you needed to move on.