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Change Work January 2016

The ties that bind

In the UK, much is being written and said about MPs' loyalty to their party leader and where their apparent lack of it will lead. Is loyalty more important than anything else, crucial to the success of political parties and the ultimate badge of character for their senior members? If not, how far should they be expected to be pushed by it?

These questions aren't confined to political groupings. They arise in all forms of human relationships, for example:
  • Friendships
  • Community
  • Teams - sporting or at work
  • Employee-employer
  • Customer-brand
to name a few.

Loyalty's expression can range from a trivial decision about where to do your shopping right up to (in relation to friends in peril or to country) the ultimate self-sacrifice.

In general, how does loyalty manifest itself in our behaviours, and why do we have it at all? How are we influenced to display loyalty?

Robert Cialdini identified 6 principles of influence:
  1. Reciprocity People tend to return a favour
  2. Commitment and Consistency If people commit publicly to an idea or goal, it becomes part of their self-image so they are likely to honour the commitment
  3. Social Proof People will do things that they see other people are doing
  4. Authority People will tend to obey authority figures, even going against their own preferences or beliefs
  5. Liking People are easily persuaded by other people that they like
  6. Scarcity Perceived scarcity will generate demand
It seems to me that all of these, with the exception of "scarcity", result in behaviours that we could call "loyalty".

As Cialdini shows through many examples, people can be influenced to do the most remarkable things when subjected to one of his principles so they are certainly powerful enough to account for even the most extreme expressions of loyalty.

I wonder if there's also a connection with the evolution of altruism that Richard Dawkins has written about. The problem here is to explain how we evolved our concern for others if evolution is driven by "the selfish gene". At first sight, we should only be concerned with preserving our individual bodies and the particular genes we carry. Dawkins explains how you would expect altruistic behaviour towards close kin to evolve because they share many of our genes. And indeed we seem to be most strongly driven to care about, and to be loyal to, our immediate families.

But that loyalty can be extended to non-family. The Commitment and Consistency principle shows how we adhere to new allegiances very strongly once we have made them openly. This can be done deliberately, as in joining a club, or inadvertently when we commit to a small thing and then find we feel obliged to comply when subsequently asked to do a much bigger thing. (Cialdini give examples of this behaviour from his research.)

Reciprocity, returning a favour, is a form of loyalty that can persist after the initial exchange. It does imply though that loyalty has to be two-way. The supermarket customer card purports to be all about rewarding your continuing patronage by giving you special offers and discounts. Of course, the retailer gets a lot more out of it than just your future custom; they also get a lot of information about your buying habits and other preferences that they can use to maximise your value to them.

Does loyalty have any limits? How much pain are you obliged to take for someone else? Your loyalty to a friend might well conflict with the obligations you owe to the wider community, such as being asked to cover up for someone who's broken the law. And should you be loyal to your community or team even when you disagree with the majority view - "my country right or wrong"? Such conflicts can be extremely troubling and might lead to the end of a relationship.

So we're forced to remain loyal, even at great cost to ourselves, by several considerations:
  • Self-image, or sense of identity, compels us to be consistent
  • We feel we owe something to the other party and are uncomfortable with that obligation
  • We don't want to jeopardise our relationship
All of this applies to others' loyalty to you, and you can choose to reciprocate or to exploit it. If the latter, then you can probably expect their loyalty to persist long after you cease to deserve it, although it will eventually fade. So maybe the development of loyal behaviour has a lot to do with self-interest and what you get in return - in addition to what your genes get.

So, are the political leader's relationships more important than his goals? Professional politicians have to play the game. The value of their relationships are judged on the advantages they bring so there doesn't seem to be much room for loyalty, except that based on common interest. I don't know whether politicians are as loyal as anyone else in other (private) areas of their lives, so another fascinating question arises:

Do individuals choose to go into politics based on a lower than average "loyalty quotient", or do they have to learn how to do treachery?