"Our new chief executive is doing quite well, but I don't know how long he will stick around," chimed an executive committee member. Subtly and secretively he was asking, "Should I fully align myself with him or keep allegiances with the old guard?"
The zero-sum game of loyalty, picking sides in organisational life, is nothing new, but it is ripe with fear. And we know fear can put the brakes on growth.
It was explained to me that this executive's sentiment was representative of what the broader workforce was struggling with. They just did not know whom to align with - the current chief executive or the old guard.
Both allegiances had risks, which were given far more consideration than the rewards.
The overarching fear was if they declared their support for the chief executive and his strategy and then he left, they were exposed as being disloyal.
What to do?
What worried me more than the concentration on loyalty and what side to pick was the paralysis coming from the inbred fear. I really don't think they were consumed with loyalty; they were worried about the repercussions of deciding whom to back. Helping employees, even line managers, to overcome fear is the real leadership challenge when they are struggling with picking sides.
So, let's focus on how to build loyalty by helping others overcome fear. The first thing you need to do is to resign from playing politics. Just don't do it.
The reality is that you are probably surrounded by politics. After all, an organisation is a social entity, and it seems any time people come together politics show up, especially when so much value - self-worth and financial - is attached to it. The existence of politics is an unavoidable reality, but engaging in them is your choice.
Rather than playing politics, shift your focus to delivering results, which is our second point. Focus everyone on delivery. Idle time is a breeding ground for office politics, along with an internal focus - navel gazing. When there is not an external enemy, the internal ones show up in the form of politics.
Loyalty that overcomes fear comes when you are able to keep your team focused on the goal: growth. Actually, it is more than keeping your team focused; this attitude should become a part of your reputation. Every meeting you are in, every conversation you have should be one where you redirect the conversation to what is important - delivering results.
The foundational work of a leader is to help others succeed. This should go without saying, but this is how you should measure your own success. Are people better for having been around you? Are they succeeding? Helping others succeed has a calming effect that brings comfort minimising fear.
The simplest leadership actions are the formula for building loyalty and removing fear. When you combine staying out of politics personally with a focus on results and helping others succeed, you bring surety to your employees.
What doesn't build surety is engaging in the picking of sides. The temptation to have off-the-record conversations with the supposed purpose of fact-finding - you know, the kind where you just want to keep your finger on the pulse of your troops - is rife with danger. It sends the message that it is OK to have secret conversations, which yields more politics.
Rather than playing doctor and checking the pulse of the company, be the drum major and keep the tempo.
Shield the team from politics, instead of engaging in them.
Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, an adviser and the author of The CEO Shift. He is the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center