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First things first: Where employees are concerned, loyalty has nothing to do with blind obedience, or unthinking devotion, or length of tenure.
Surprised? Think of it this way. Which employee displays greater loyalty?
1. The employee who has been with you for ten years and in that time has learned to do just enough to fly, unseen, under the performance issues radar, or
2. The employee who has been with you for 18 months and believes in where you're going, how you want to get there – and proves it every day by her actions
Of course experience is important, but given the choice I'll take the employee behind door #2 every time.
At HubSpot we're fortunate to have hundreds of extremely loyal employees. We're working hard to create a culture that recognizes and rewards true loyalty. We still have a long ways to go, but you can see our "work in progress" in our Culture Code slide deck.
Truly loyal employees are not just committed to helping their companies succeed; their loyalty is also displayed in other ways, some of them surprising.
1. They display loyalty through integrity.
Many people assume loyalty is proven through obedience: Often unthinking and unquestioning, even when a request or directive falls into a gray area or, worse, is unethical or illegal.
An employee who consistently seeks to do the right thing is not just following a personal credo – she's also looking out for your long-term interests. You may see her as disloyal today… but in time you'll realize that she displayed the highest form of loyalty by helping you avoid missing the "do the right thing" forest for the "do it right now" trees.
2. They generate discussions others will not.
Many employees hesitate to voice their opinions or feelings in a group setting. Some even hesitate to voice their opinions in private.
An employee once asked me a question about a new initiative. After the meeting I pulled him aside and said, "Why did you ask about our new pricing strategy? You know what we're doing – you were part of the planning." He said, "I do, but a lot of other people don't, and they're hesitant to ask since they aren't directly affected. I thought it would help if they could hear what you're thinking and what we're planning."
Loyal employees have a great feel for the issues and concerns of the people around them, and they ask the questions or raise the important issues when others won't. They know, for the company to succeed, that you need to know what employees are thinking… and that employees need to know what you are thinking.
3. They praise their peers.
Truly loyal employees care: About the company, about its customers, about its mission… they feel they're working for something greater than just themselves. So they appreciate when another employee does something great because that means the company is fulfilling its mission.
Employees that praise and recognize others, especially when it's not their job to do so, don't just display great interpersonal skills. (When you do something well, praise from your boss feels great… but it's also, at least generally speaking, expected. At least it should be. Praise from a peer feels awesome, especially when you respect that person.)
By praising others, they show they care.
Caring forms the basis of loyalty.
4. They dissent and disagree
Every great company fosters debate and disagreement. Every great leader wants employees to question, to deliberate, and to push back. Weighing the positives and negatives of a decision, sharing conflicting opinions, playing devil's advocate… disagreement is healthy. It's stimulating. It leads to better decisions.
Loyal employees share their opinions, even when they know you may not initially appreciate those opinions, because they want the company to be better tomorrow than it is today. And they'll occasionally take stands against a point of view or decision.
5. They support in public.
After a decision is made, loyal employees get behind that decision even if they privately disagree. And they don't just pay the decision lip service; they support the decision as if it were their own – because when you're loyal, every decision is, ultimately, your own.
When they disagree, some employees (the not so loyal ones), whether passively or actively, try to show that a decision they disagreed with was in fact wrong.
A truly loyal employee puts aside his feelings and actively tries to make every decision the right decision – instead of willing it to fail so they can prove themselves right.
6. They tell you what you least want to hear.
The Inverse Rule of Candor states that the greater the difference in "rank," the less likely an employee will be to openly take a different position: An entry-level employee is fairly likely to tell his direct supervisor that he disagrees with that supervisor's decision, but he is almost totally unlikely to tell his boss's boss's boss that he disagrees with his decision.
If you're the CEO, that means your direct reports may pull you aside for an open, forthright chat… but few other employees ever will.
Truly loyal employees know that what you least want to hear may be what you – and by extension your company – most need to hear: That an initiative won't work, that a decision-making process is flawed, that a mistake has been made… truly loyal employees realize that while you may not like what you hear, ultimately you want to hear it because what matters most is doing what is best for your employees, your customers, and your company.
Well-intended silence can be a good sign of loyalty; speaking up, especially when it's awkward or even painful to do so, can be the best sign.
7. They leave when they need to leave.
If you can't tell by now, a truly loyal employee is almost always a sensational employee. Often, they're your best employees – so the last thing you want is for them to leave.
Yet sometimes they do: For a different lifestyle, for a better opportunity, for a chance to move to a different industry, or simply to take what they've learned and start their own company.
When it's time, they tell you it's time to leave – and they help you prepare to fill the hole they create.
You? You're disappointed but you wish them well. For a time, even if only for a few years, they put your company's interests ahead of their own…
…and now it's your turn to do the same for them. Of course, you can always make your most convincing arguments to encourage them to stay (hey, you're loyal too!) – but if it doesn't work out, the right thing to do is to return their loyalty, wish them well and help them continue to stay awesome.