Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Limits of Loyalty

Ethicist Michael Josephson has talked of dog loyalty and cat loyalty. Dogs are loyal to the master or the mistress while cats are loyal to the house. [Churchill observed that dogs look up to you and cats look down on you, but pigs regard you as an equal.]

Josephson's distinction is used to illustrate how there are times when personal loyalty is insufficient because other stakeholders have overriding claims to that loyalty. Some examples of the other stakeholders are the community, the nation, the organization, the co-workers, and the boss.

I thought of this the other day while addressing an employee's question on how to behave when the boss's boss does a walk-through. We agreed that supporting the boss does not extend to lying or evading questions and that a boss who behaves criminally or unethically has suspended all claims to loyalty. At the same time, some basic loyalty means that you strive to make the boss look good and don't go out of your way to surface what could be seen as negative information.

Some may argue with that approach. They will advocate that everything be surfaced, warts and all, so the boss's boss gets the full picture. That approach looks better on paper than in practice. The top person knows that there is a certain amount of dissent in most work units and that some employees would prefer that matters be handled differently. An employee who would surface minor issues risks being seen as a little too eager to discredit the supervisor.

People don't like cover-up artists but they also don't like rats. There is a point at which the motives behind "full disclosure" may be legitimately questioned.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Michael. I listed it as one of my top five in my weekly look at the business blogs.

Michael Wade said...

Thanks, Wally!

Josephson Institute said...

Great Post!

We started posting audio of his commentaries on a new youtube channel - If you end up posting any of the videos, share the link with us via twitter at