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We need to talk about loyalty

“What magic do you create for others to develop and thrive?” I was recently bowled over by this question at a conference, posed by the brilliant Paolo Giuricich, and it really got me thinking that we need to revisit how we talk about loyalty in the workplace. This conversation comes up often when discussing millennials in the workplace, in terms of our expectations and the things that drive our decision-making.

It’s worth saying that many of the characteristics we attribute to millennials probably apply to most people – we’re perhaps more vocal about them. Who doesn’t want to feel like they are growing and developing, like their organisation really cares about them and that the organisation fundamentally does good in society? Surely we all do? So I want to expand this conversation to encompass how we should all reframe what we consider loyalty.

Most people will list loyalty as an important characteristic in a friend or partner, and accept that part of earning that loyalty is investing in the relationship. This reciprocal nature of relationship needs to be carried through to how we think about loyalty in the workplace. Organisations need to invest in the experience they create for employees – the magic they create for employees to develop and thrive in order to earn their loyalty.

It’s important to take a pause here and say that the loyalty I’m referring to looks very different from what you may imagine. Our current understanding of loyalty to an organisation is rooted in how long you stay, and I believe that this perspective is quickly becoming outdated. In an age where people will have multiple careers, the average tenure at an organisation is likely to decrease. In addition, many of the employees you may classify as loyal may in fact still be disengaged, discouraged and perhaps even destructive in extreme cases. Just because they have stayed doesn’t mean they want to stay, particularly in this economy!

As a result, it may be useful to develop an expanded definition and understanding of loyalty. Instead of focusing on tenure and how to get employees to stay, the more important question is how to get employees to want to stay. Emerging research on employee engagement suggests that companies should focus on creating the right combination of experiences to make “champions” out of their employees.

Champions are people who rave about their workplace and actively encourage people to apply to join the organisation, in order to share in that experience. They refer friends and are invested in the growth and success of the organisation. You’re probably thinking that I am describing a fictional character, but with the right commitment and structure it is absolutely possible.

At this point, many of my clients then ask “why should we invest all these resources, only for another company to reap the fruits of our labour when the employee leaves?” I’d like to suggest that you will reap the fruits too, just not how you may expect. First prize is that where people have been invested in and have opportunities to grow as their authentic selves, they will be persuaded to stay longer. This is important in terms of deepening skills to achieve mastery and preserving institutional knowledge. I would add, however, that given the fact that we are living in the multi-career age, champions don’t have to stay in your organisation to be valuable to you. Based on their experience – the magic that was created for their development and thriving – they want others to know about and benefit from your organisation. People don’t easily forget the people who believed and invested in them, so you may even benefit much further down the line when the talent you’ve invested in is influential in some way (all ethics and policies observed, of course).

An expanded understanding of loyalty also means an expanded understanding of measuring return on investment. Smart EQ, thought leaders in the practice of creating champions, suggest that organisations should rather be speaking of a social return on investment. In this case, success is measured not just in terms of retention but in terms of the engagement and growth of employees, and the brand and business growth that comes from that. I’ll share an example as a testament to that.

It’s generally accepted in the world of management consulting that the average tenure for junior employees is around two years, but their approach to talent brings benefits for far longer than that. The rigorous recruitment process and extensive professional development investment in this industry means that they believe their former employees will go on to do great things, and may even go on to become clients of theirs. I’m not suggesting that the industry is perfect, but they absolutely know how to create champions.

The corollary of that is how in some industries, early career talent is required to pay back the investment made if they leave before a certain time. This kind of arrangement builds resentment in employees, and costs the organisation dearly in that they are less likely to be engaged and productive (if they want to leave) and may actively discourage promising candidates from applying. Just last week I asked a brilliant young black professional if she’d like to be considered for a role at an organisation that seemed like the perfect fit. She quickly refused because a current employee she trusts had shared that the organisational culture may be alienating because the company has been slow to transform. In the current talent wars, organisations cannot afford to be losing talent before they even apply!

So, what is the secret sauce to creating this champion-inducing magic? It’s simply listening to what employees are saying they need in today’s world of work, and committing real resources to making that a reality. These needs are well-documented – employees are looking for stimulating work, growth and development opportunities, and inclusive and dynamic organisational cultures. It seems simple, but the commitment to truly investing in people really is half the battle won – there are many professionals in the field that can help bring the specificities to life in your particular organisation.

What’s important for organisations to know and believe is that loyalty is earned, and they need to truly invest in the relationship to reap the benefits of loyalty from current and former (and perhaps soon-to-be former) employees. It means that organisations need to honour the promises made in the recruitment process, and ensure that they value employees enough to invest in creating the magic of champions.

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