Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Coaching Lessons: What Price Loyalty?

A man and his wife meet up at a tavern for a quick after-work dinner. When he sees her walk through the doors he knows instantly that she is in a bad mood. Soon he discovers the reason: she got into a conflict with one of her co-workers. Now she wants to tell him exactly what happened.

For his part, he wants to help. He listens carefully, steps back from the situation, puts himself above the fray, and asks a series of probing questions, the kind that an investigator would ask. He wants to discover the truth; he wants to know who was right and who was wrong.

Perhaps he sees himself as an investigative reporter or maybe he believes that he should be the judge who will have to figure out who to blame.

In his mind someone is right and someone is wrong. He is committed to truth and justice; he wants it to prevail.

I hope I don't have to tell you that however upset his wife had been when walking into the tavern, she is, by now, incensed... at him. He might see himself as fair-minded and objective. She sees him as disloyal.

And she is right. Under the circumstances his first ethical duty is to show solidarity, to take her side, to be with her, and to show her that they are in it together.

Some psychologists describe this in terms of empathy, and I think that their point is well taken. But the real question is not so much whether he feels her pain, but whether he is exhibiting loyalty.

Once he has established that he is on her side, then he might or might not help her to solve the problem. It will depend on whether she wants any guidance in the matter. If he is going to help, his goal should be to help her to win the battle or to solve the problem.

If he maintains his distance, looks for objective truths, and sees the situation as something that needs to be adjudicated, he will have undermined his marriage.

Let's change the scenario, just slightly. Imagine that this soon-to-be-very-unhappy couple is having dinner at the same tavern with two of their good friends. Imagine that the wife expresses the same degree of frustration about the same conflict with the same co-worker.

Given that friendship has certain rules of engagement, her friends will most likely be utterly sympathetic. They will take her side.

What will happen if her husband decides that he loves the truth so much that he must point out her errors to show how she aggravated the conflict. Now, he is not merely disloyal; he has also humiliated his wife in front of their friends.

Clearly, we are in the realm of major ethical lapses. Just as clearly we are witnessing the kind of behavior that makes it nearly impossible for people to get alone.

If the husband becomes defensive, he might try a rationalization that you have probably heard more often than you would have liked. He might assert that his criticism is really an act of love, that he loves her so much that he cannot stand seeing her be less than he wants her to be.

Ask yourself this? On their next anniversary do you think that he should offer a piece of jewelry that express how loving and caring she is, or should he offer a lifetime membership in Weight Watchers because he thinks she's been getting too fat?

If the latter is an honest expression of his feelings, it's a very good argument for keeping your feelings to yourself, or better,for learning to respect other people's feelings.

The ethic that values loyalty is based on the social connection called friendship. And friendship, as Aristotle said, is based on seeing the best, not the worst, in your other people.

Why was Aristotle right? Because if you are constantly noticing the worst in people or constantly talking about what it wrong with them, they are not going to be your friends. Instead of befriending them, you have been acting as though they are actual or potential foes.

Let us look at this in a larger context. You have noticed that certain of our fellow citizens make a habit of criticizing their country. They find fault with whatever it does; they diminish its successes; they even find virtue in the actions of its enemies.

If you ask them why they have such a negative attitude, they will often reply that they love their nation so much that they want it to live up to its ideals, and that it cannot live up to its ideals if no one is going to point out its faults, flaws, and failings.

One might reply that our nation has been a towering success for all these many years precisely because it did not become obsessed with picking its wounds and engaging in a fruitless pursuit of an unattainable perfection.

But that is not going to make too much of an impression on our idealistic neighbor.

Does this man love his country? It depends on whether you believe that true loyalty is the kind that exists in his heart or the kind that is expressed in his public behavior. Relentless criticism of his country does not make him unpatriotic, but it does not make him a patriot either.

Loyalty is the social virtue that asserts your social connection to people and to groups. They might be groups you belong to or groups with which you identify. You can be loyal to a baseball team without playing second base.

What would one say then about American Jews who have an emotional and spiritual connection to Israel, and yet, who criticize all of its faults and failings, to the point where they even express a certain amount of sympathy for terrorist groups that want to destroy it. To name names, the J Street crowd comes to mind, as does, most recently Peter Beinart.

Are they being loyal to Israel? Do they maintain a friendly relationship with the Jewish state? Of course, they do not.

Perhaps they believe that they have a higher loyalty, or that their loyalty to America's values precludes them feeling any loyalty to the only Middle Eastern nation that embodies those values.

If they insist that they are loyal to the truth or justice, or some such ideal, I would reply that you cannot be loyal to an ideal. If you become part of a cult that treats these great ideals as idols to worship, then you might think of yourself as being loyal to that group, but that is all.

Loyalty is basic to all social ties. You are expected to be loyal to your family members, to your friends, to your company, to your nation, to your religious community, and so on. And we should never underestimate the power of loyalty as producing social cohesion.

As some people might be thinking, there are surely instances where a person or a group will forfeit its right to your loyalty. If a man discovers that his wife is a serial killer, then he does not have a social obligation to remain loyal to her. If he discovers that his company is involved in an organized criminal conspiracy to poison half the planet, he no longer has a duty to be loyal to the company.

Extremes do not make the rules, however, and the fact that we can imagine extreme cases where loyalty might be suspended does not imply that it is less important. Nor does it imply that the conditions for its suspension are any less than extreme.

Take whistle blowers. We all admire people who dispense with their company loyalty in order to reveal corporate malfeasance. If your company is large enough and if the malfeasance is egregious enough, being a whistle blower will almost certainly get you of 60 Minutes and offer you at least 15 minutes of fame.

And yet, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains in its entry about loyalty, whistle blowing must be a last, not a first or second or third, resort. The fact that you have discovered something wrong does not immediately absolve you of all requirements to be loyal to your company. To ensure yourself of the extremity of the situation you will need to work through corporate channels and to try to effect change from within.

Even when you are absolutely in the right and you have no real choice but to expose criminal corporate activities, the chances are good that when you get home from your 60 Minutes interview you will find yourself ostracized by your friends and neighbors, a pariah in your community, and a social reject. You will also discover that the same stigma has been transferred to your family.

I am not just trying to sound a cautionary note. I am using this example to point out that loyalty is a very, very powerful social virtue, and that, whenever you have the option, it is better to exhibit it than not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Instead of befriending them, you have been acting as though they are actual or potential foes.

You've hit the nail on the head with that. I suffered that from a former "friend" I had known for years.

When I described to my wife how hypercritical my friend was, and how bad I felt, she laughed and said:

"But he's totally incompetent at everything! How can you not see that!? I was nice to him 'cuz he was your friend, but now I can tell you: he's a dope!"

There you go. Man, I felt better. I never talked to him again.