Downwards disloyalty: An insidious threat

Collaboration is the glue every team or organisation employs to achieve sustainable high performance. Collaboration exists in many forms and guises, some of which are stronger and more effective than others.

The basis of collaboration is mutual benefit. At the simplest level, the benefits can be transactional, such as the provision of labour in exchange for food. At a higher conceptual level, the drivers that strengthen and widen collaboration and the realisation of mutual benefit are more intangible, multi-faceted and centred around trust, respect and, ultimately, loyalty. Loyalty is the most important. In any high-functioning team, loyalty must exist upwards, across and downwards in the hierarchy.

So how is loyalty created? On a simple level, you have a mutually beneficial relationship with your assistant. You ensure he gets paid and his rights are protected. In return, he works hard and helps you succeed. The benefits of your collaboration may grow as you learn to rely on and trust each other. This may develop further into mutual respect, and once that exists, your relationship is no longer based on quid pro quo transactions but on a higher conceptual level. Advancement from respect to loyalty is a small but definite step.

Think of it another way. If you do not respect someone, are you able to be truly loyal to them? Likewise, if you do not trust them, your loyalty to them will be artificial at best; and if there is no transactional, security or status-based benefit is there even a reason to collaborate with someone?

A lack of loyalty or active disloyalty within an organisation in any one of the three dimensions (upwards, downwards and across) will negatively affect loyalty levels in the other two. Rifts in organisations are often caused by a breakdown in loyalty spreading to other dimensions within a hierarchy. Let’s look at the potential effects of broken downwards loyalty.

Lucy’s story

Lucy enjoys a good working relationship with her boss, Shari. She’s always happy to go the extra mile for her. They work for Finedine Ltd., a national catering company that provides in-house catering
for a large regional insurance company. Finedine is under pressure from competitors, and layoffs are threatened. Lucy is responsible for front-of-house
services, while Shari is in charge of meal production and managing the overall team.

One lunchtime, two customers at a table of six are served cold, congealing food because the chef – Shari’s friend – failed to get the table’s meals ready at the same time. They complain to their waiter,
who takes the food back to the kitchen to be warmed up. While waiting, the waiter tells Shari about the problem. Peeking through the door, Shari realises with horror that the people complaining are the CEO and CFO of the insurance

Panicked, she snatches up the reheated plates and, as she puts them down in front of the customers, says: “I’m so sorry, we’ve been badly let down, yet again, by our front-of-house team. I will be having a word with them. Please accept lunch with our compliments.” Shari was entirely unaware that Lucy was directly behind her.

Shari has been caught in an act of disloyalty by a subordinate with whom she has had a good relationship underpinned by personal loyalty. What made her act as she did and what are the
likely outcomes of her downwards disloyalty?

Sacrificing blameless colleagues is not a business solution

Certainly, Shari wished to avoid having a dissatisfied CFO decide to get new caterers, but she could easily have apologised without blaming someone who had nothing to do with the problem. By not blaming the chef, she was demonstrating loyalty (misplaced or not) to the actual culprit. But was there really a need to blame anyone? Admitting a problem, undertaking to ensure it is not repeated and offering compensation is usually enough to satisfy most customers.

Is the damage irreparable?

Lucy is shocked by what her manager has
done. She feels let down, confused and worthless. These emotions are then superseded by outrage and anger. She is now likely to look for redress and even
revenge. Lucy has several options open to her and her choice will depend on her character, emotional intelligence, personal values and her personal life/financial circumstances. She can confront Shari and/or take one of the following options:

  1. Ask for an apology from Shari, forgive her behaviour and draw a line under the episode.
  2. Do nothing but remain displeased and reduce her working collaboration to the purely contractual and transactional
  3. Ostensibly do nothing but covertly undermine Shari, and possibly the chef, at every opportunity
  4. Make an informal complaint to Shari’s line manager
  5. Make a formal complaint to Shari’s line manager
  6. Walk out of the job and potentially claim compensation for constructive dismissal.

While forgiveness will permit Shari and Lucy to continue to work together, none of these options is likely to re-establish mutual respect, trust and loyalty. On the one hand, Lucy will always doubt that Shari will promote her best interests, especially when it
comes to annual assessments, promotions, and the like. On the other hand, having behaved so badly, Shari may resent Lucy for having witnessed her poor conduct.
She may even worry that Lucy will have a hold over her unless she grants her favours.

From now on both parties face a problematic
and probably limited future working relationship.

What is the best outcome for the organisation?

The best outcome for the organisation would ideally directly reflect the best outcome for Lucy. What that might entail will become clear only if Lucy complains about Shari’s behaviour to Shari’s line manager, Andrew, and her grievance is discussed openly. The optimum situation would be for Shari herself to inform Andrew of her conduct as this would demonstrate
a degree of integrity and remorse to both Lucy and Andrew.

However it is initiated, the discussion between Lucy and Andrew should allow Lucy to state her position and indicate the action she would like to be taken. Andrew would have to judge whether Lucy’s wishes are realistic, fair, logical and serve her and the organisation’s best interests.

What are the likely outcomes of Andrew’s meeting with Lucy?

Learning points

  • Shari cannot come out of this situation with any credit and there is little that she can do other than apologise and/or resign. There is no satisfactory explanation for what she did.
  • Even if Lucy is forgiving, there is little scope for her and Shari to work in the same team again.
  • Indeed, it is highly likely that everyone in the team knows what Shari has done and will trust and respect her less. Doubting her loyalty to them, they will be less loyal to her. Their working relationship will be damaged – permanently.
  • At worst, Lucy threatens to walk out unless Shari is fired. If this were to happen, Andrew would have to weigh up the cost of keeping a tarnished Shari leading a team that is likely to be less effective in future versus losing and paying compensation to a good junior manager who could sue for wrongful dismissal.
  • Even if Lucy only demands an apology, Shari lied to a customer, defamed a colleague and demonstrated poor managerial judgement. It would be best to find out why she felt she had to blame somebody, and why she blamed Lucy rather than the chef. Then, with the facts in the open, it would be most appropriate to ask Shari for her resignation or to sack her.

Author: Jeremy McTeague

Photo by Obie Fernandez on Unsplash

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