Loyalty: A Virtue or Vice?

Lately I have been pondering the impact our personal values have on our decisions and behaviors.  My resilience research, especially the exploration of Holocaust survivors’ and veterans’ stories, has led me to realize just how much we act/react based on what we value.  I have often led students in a values learning exercise to assist them in identifying their purpose.  Most people will list the values they “want or hope” to possess, but we know from the evidence that many people are not fully aware of the values that truly drive their behaviors.

During my exploration of generational differences in the workforce, it has become apparent that those of my generation (baby-boomers) and older, typically place “loyalty” as a top value.  This is not true for the millennials and younger generations.  Loyalty is viewed as a positive trait and many leaders have been known to make decisions based on this feature.  For instance, I have known leaders who have hired, promoted, and retained employees who are disruptive and destructive to the work environment simply based on his/her loyalty to the leader.  This is something we see in history that should serve as a warning to all of us.

Ben Ferencz describes the actions of the Nazis and their ability to make murderers out of otherwise decent people.  This is something I have seen in my research of the Holocaust.  We wish/want to see the perpetrators as monsters.  However, the truth is they were doing what they believed was right based on their values, primarily loyalty to a person or system.  Transcripts from the interviews and trials clearly depict men and women who were well-educated, family-oriented, and otherwise “normal” citizens.  However, they allowed leadership and systems to dictate their behaviors without thinking or considering alternative actions.  This is very dangerous and something we can see in dysfunctional systems even now.  The willingness to blindly follow a leader simply because of his/her position is cause for concern.

For many years I had a quote posted in my office and I used it often when teaching, “Doing what’s right isn’t always easy, but it’s always right”.  I have come to realize that “right” is a very subjective concept, one based on our personal values.  Many will claim to possess certain values (e.g integrity, trust, justice), but their behaviors indicate “loyalty” trumps all of these.  We see this when “right” is determined to be doing what they believe is necessary even when it violates their own personal moral code.  They often justify this as being realistic and anyone who acts in opposition is called an “idealist”.

Resilient individuals have been found to possess certain Protective Factors (characteristics or behaviors that help buffer the effects of stress/adversity).  These include positive emotions, humor, faith, optimism, tenacity, perseverance, sense of purpose, and a high level of self-awareness.  As I have been exploring ways to increase resilience in healthcare professions students and professionals, I have become increasingly aware of the need for self-awareness, which includes a values-based worldview.  The evidence is clear that many individuals in healthcare, especially the nursing profession, leave a job due to moral distress.  Moral distress occurs when an individual’s personal values (moral code) is in direct conflict with the expectations of their role.  Those who have a strong moral code find it very difficult to operate in systems that operate with conflicting values.  Those who are less self-aware and prefer to hold to a loyalty-based value system, find it easier to justify behaviors that others find extremely distasteful or disturbing.  Many new healthcare professionals experience moral distress when they first enter the workforce and realize that the organization’s values are often trumped by less-than altruistic motivations.

I encourage you to read/watch the post below and consider the implications for our roles and responsibilities in our own world today.  Do we dare think for ourselves and choose our behaviors based on our values?  Or, do we blindly follow the demands of those who may or may not be acting justly?  As a Christian, I choose to believe in God’s definition of “right” and I rely on His guidance for the ultimate determination of my personal values.

Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?


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