The Loyalty Switch: How to make anyone loyal to you, your organization, or your cause

Virtually LoyalThe secret to making your digital relationships loyal

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A Subtle Difference

I’m not really a “Be Different” kind of a guy. I know it’s the popular thing these days with many experts claiming it to be the only path to success in this highly competitive, and deeply recessed global economy. “You need to be unique, special, one-of-a-kind,” they say.

I don’t really agree.

While having an exceptional set of skills will certainly take you far, you have no chance compared to those who know how to build great relationships. And relationships are formed from the similarities that connect us rather than the differences that make us unique.

Evolution has wired our brain to notice differences, but not as a positive experience. We have a built-in warning signal that tells us to be careful and cautious whenever something unexpected appears or occurs. We become suspicious and often fearful when things and people don’t seem familiar to us. It can be seen in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case in Florida. It explains why Mitt Romney is having trouble connecting with voters. It is why so many marriages end with the utterance, “you’ve changed.”  Differences can capture our attention, but they also put us on guard and make us feel uncomfortable.  

That’s not to say that “different” doesn’t create some opportunities. It does. Especially when it comes to getting noticed during that initial attraction stage of a relationship. It’s just a matter of degree. Doing different will serve you much better than being different. Here is a simple example:

Whenever I speak at a conference, I will always bring home some business cards that people hand to me when we meet. I don’t end up with as many as if I actually attended the conference, but enough to notice a pattern. They all look alike.

Yes, there are some slight differences - different colors, different fonts, use of the front and back of the card. But for the most part, they are all the same. I can’t help but wonder why. Don’t get me wrong, I love things that are designed simply and beautifully and am not really a fan of anything “zany” or “outlandish.” Certainly not a business card. But I am surprised when tradition and convention (and perhaps taking the easy route)  takes precedent over the opportunity to stand out a bit.

Several years ago, I received a business card from the curator of a London Museum. It was standard white with a classic Times Roman font printed on one side only. Nothing remarkable. What made this card special, however, was it’s size and weight. It was slightly larger and thicker than any card I had ever received. I took it and included it in the stash of other business cards I received that day. What I found was that I could never tuck it away into my nice clean stack. While all the other cards blended perfectly together, this one always stood out. Not enough to be annoying, but just enough to cause me notice it. Over and over again.

I ran into the curator at breakfast the next morning and told him how much I liked his card and how difficult it was to bury amongst the others. We ended up talking for quite awhile and discovered that we both were Irish, loved baseball, had fathers who were doctors, and had just finished reading Dan Ariely’s book “Predictably Irrational.”  The difference of his card introduced us, the similarities of our lives made us friends.

Don't confuse doing different with being different. One will get you noticed, the other will get you feared.


Time and Money

My friend Dean is the best salesman I’ve ever known. He could sell anything and, in fact, pretty much has. Cars, Insurance, Software, Pharmaceuticals, Real Estate, you name it and Dean has sold it. I once asked him the secret to his success and he said, “That’s simple. Time. You can sell anything to anyone if you just convince them to give you their time.”

Dean knows what he’s talking about.

Of all the things we have, time is our most precious commodity. You want proof? Put a price tag on the next year of your life. How much would you sell it for? How much would you take to give up a year’s worth of living, knowing everything you would miss, including the lives of your family and friends? I’m going to guess it would take a LOT of money. More than you would earn in that same year, and more than all of your current assets combined. Time is what we value most.

It’s an important lesson to learn. We all spend a great deal of energy looking for new ways to extract money from people - from our clients, our customers, our investors, our donors, our alumni, our members, our department name it - but very little convincing them to give us their time. That’s because it’s a harder sell. It’s easier for me to write you a small check than to give you some of my valuable and limited time. But, as Dean would say, time is where the real money is. When you, or your product, or your service, or your cause is worth more to me than just my money, when it is worth my time, that’s when you’ve really sold me.

Advertising, sales calls, and fundraising campaigns will get you money. Building relationships will get you time.


What Are They Afraid Of?

I wasn’t going to write about the recent events at Penn State University ( and I felt that people who are much smarter and more articulate than I am were saying and writing everything that needed to be written and said. Even if I didn’t always agree with them.

But on Monday, I changed my mind. I know that those of you who come here to read this blog have no interest in hearing my opinion about politics, sex abuse scandals, or the firing of a football coach. You come here for some insights into how to build and maintain loyal relationships and the science that shapes our human behaviors. The truth is, however, this story - as it has unfolded - exposes one of the darkest sides of our human nature. Our tendency to stand idly by and do nothing.

The facts of the Penn State case will eventually tell us who did what and when, as well as who did not. But isn’t it ironic that a debate questioning why people would not get involved to stop criminal behavior would result in thousands of students taking to the streets to watch a few of their peers shatter car windows, flip over news vans, tear down lamp posts, and throw rocks at police? In other words, not get involved to stop criminal behavior. Even though the vandals were heavily outnumbered, the potential peacekeepers stood idly by and did nothing.

It’s hard to watch, but certainly not unusual, because we see it every day. It happens on public streets and playgrounds, as often as it does in schools and churches and the office buildings where we work  Maybe without the salaciousness of a sex abuse scandal at a prominent American University involving the winningest college football coach of all-time, but make no mistake that turning a blind eye is in our blood. Or I should say, in our brain. It is our nature to avoid confrontation and not get involved.

How many of you work with a “problem” employee who no one wants to deal with? They are a cancer to the organization polluting everything they touch with their complaining, their excuses, their attitude, and their work ethic. And yet, they remain. Often moved around like furniture nobody wants.

How many of you have an incompetent boss, an unethical supervisor, or a terrible manager who you have learned to “work around” just because it’s easier that way?

How many of you have a client, a customer, a member, or a donor who costs more than they are worth and are impossible to please, yet are never evaluated or possibly “fired?”

And how often are you that person who turns away from what is wrong, believing it is someone else’s problem to deal with or hoping it (or they) will just go away?

Don’t feel bad or guilty about your answer because you aren’t alone. Courage and fearlessness have not fared too well in the evolutionary process, especially in humans. And for good reason. It’s always been a very dangerous world out there, particularly for a species without a whole lot of defense mechanisms. Not having fangs, claws, strength, speed, or a durable, protective skin, has left humans especially vulnerable to threats. So being courageous and fearless is something we learned to avoid.

Having brave genes did not serve our ancestors well. By constantly exposing themselves to dangerous situations, the brave died off quickly and became fewer in number. The cowards, on the other hand - our ancestors who were best able to run away and hide from danger - now they had a lot of success. They survived. And mated with the other cowards who were also exceptional at running and hiding and before we knew it, we had an entire planet filled with those who understood that success is more likely when you lay low or turn away instead of standing up to fight.

So here’s the point of all this. We are wired to be cowards, not heros. Certainly nothing to brag about, but it's true. Our fears are what motivate us above all else. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of losing our job. Fear of damaging our reputation (or the reputation of our organization). Fear of being held responsible, of being ostracized, of not being liked, of being alone. The list is endless. But what's important to understand is that while our fears and our resistance to risk has served us pretty well as as individuals, they get in the way when trying to build successful “communities.” They inhibit people from working together, sharing ideas, sharing responsibilities, and supporting one another because to our brain, those activities can be risky and potentially dangerous. People are so concerned with protecting themselves, that they are willing to allow their communities to fail.

The challenge for all of you looking to build strong and healthy "communities" - whether it's a business, a nonprofit, a professional association, or your own internal team - is understanding your people's fears and then creating environments where they feel supported and not so vulnerable. A culture that is safe for them to share their ideas, to try something new, to be constructively critical of anyone and anything, to be honest and forthright, to point out what they think is wrong, and to stand up for what they believe is right. All without fear of retribution, embarrassment, or isolation.

Doing that requires you to look at your procedures and your operations and all the ways you communicate, and systematically remove every opportunity for fear to exist. To make yourself more vulnerable, so that your people are not. Penn State failed in that regard, but you don't have to.


The loyalty to Steve Jobs

On Friday, I received two emails - one from a reporter, the other from a friend - both asking the same question: “How could Steve Jobs create such a loyal following while being such an asshole most of his life?” They weren’t referring to the loyalty to Apple, to its products, or to its culture, but to Steve Jobs, the person. David and Susan, sorry for not getting back to you sooner, but here is my answer:

We have been conditioned to think of loyalty as a virtue. As some sort of selfless act of blind devotion we offer to one another. It’s a romantic idea, but not really the truth. Loyalty is a real human emotion, a selfish emotion, no different than love, or hate, or fear, that evolved in humans as a survival mechanism. A means of giving our brains a rest so that it didn’t have to be suspicious or protective of every relationship around us. When we knew who we could trust and who had our best interests at heart, we could be loyal to that person and let down our guard.

But loyalty evolved for reasons beyond mere trust. As creatures who possess an acute sense of self-awareness, we are constantly seeking fulfillment - physically, emotionally, intellectually, name it. So we also bind ourselves to those you can provide that fulfillment. Those who help make our lives about something more than survival. It think that is what Steve Jobs offered to his “followers.” A fulfillment that all of his screaming, berating, insulting and castigating couldn’t deter.

Like all of us, Steve Jobs was a flawed human being who spent his life fighting his own demons. But to so many of those who worked with him and for him, he offered an incredible sense of purpose. His vision and passion for “what could be” gave more meaning to the work of those engineers, programers, and designers than his personal wrath could ever take away.

In its own twisted way, SJ’s behavior also created an indelible sense of belonging between him and his co-workers. (At least those who chose to stick with him.) He was an unapologetic idealist who scrutinized everything from the font type used on contracts to the screen backgrounds of his keynote presentations. In a now famous story, Jobs once called the head of mobile applications at Google on a Sunday morning to tell him that he wasn’t happy with the way Google’s logo looked on the iPhone. “The yellow in the second ‘o‘ wasn’t quite the right shade.” That was the purist in Steve Jobs. He demanded perfection and abhorred mediocrity. Especially in his employees.

Imagine what it must have meant to be “chosen” to work for Steve Jobs. A guy who had no problem discarding anything and everything he believed fell short of his own lofty standards and expectations. Peel back the abrasive behavior and obnoxious antics and realize what those actions were saying to his employees every day. “You are here because you are the best there is and the only ones good enough for my perfect world.”

Now who wouldn’t be loyal to a boss who thought that?


You Don't Speak My Language

I was at a Home Depot recently and found myself in the plumbing aisle with a pretty unhappy customer. I went there looking for a 3/4” backflow preventer valve and ended up getting a lecture on “What’s wrong with America.”

What set my fellow shopper off was a package. Actually, several packages. And it wasn’t really the packages that bothered him so much as it was the writing on their fronts and sides. The Spanish writing, or as he would refer to it, “all the goddamn Hispanic words.”

(Hispanic words?)

His frustration...more like rage...was not only directed at the manufacturers who chose to include a non-English language on their packaging. He was angry at the reader. The people these words were meant to help.

I suppose I could end this story here knowing most of you have already formed an opinion about my Home Depot Guy (HDG). Tobacco-stained tee shirt, Skoal ring in the back pocket of his jeans, empty cans of Budweiser in the bed of his pickup, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, not at all. But that doesn’t stop our brain from summoning up a stereotype. Just as it didn’t stop HDG from stereotyping those who want “goddamn Hispanic words” included on packages.

Being prejudice is part of our human nature. That may be unsettling to hear, but it’s true. Today, we consider bias and bigotry and discrimination to be moral issues, moral wrongs, but they didn’t start out that way. They evolved in our brains as a protective mechanism. A means of sorting out the threats in our lives. When someone looked different, acted different, or communicated different than us, it told our brains to be careful and to not let them get too close.

Knowing that we all carry around some biases and prejudices towards others shouldn't surprise anyone. At least not if you are being honest. What is interesting, however, is the way our brains appear to “stack rank” our biases and formulate our bigotry. Our public discourse of the past 100+ years would lead us to believe that race would be at the top of our prejudicial tendencies. When, if fact, a number of studies have shown that it is language that triggers our greatest fears.

  1. Language
  2. Income
  3. Race/Ethnicity
  4. Sexual Orientation
  5. Disability
  6. Social Status
  7. Social and Spiritual Affiliation (politics, religion, membership, etc)
  8. Gender

Considering the history of racial, sexual and gender discrimiation, it may be hard to believe that our brain is more prejudicial of someone who speaks a different language. But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Consider our ancient ancestors living in their tribes and communities hundreds and thousands of years ago.The most reliable information they had to distinguish their friends from their potential enemies was a common language and a familiar means of communicating. You could have a different skin color, be a different genger, or be inflicted with a disability and still be part of my clan. But not if you didn't speak my language. That was a tell-tale sign that you were an outsider and a potential threat. Our brains learned this lesson a long time ago, and as my trip to Home Depot reminded me, it hasn't unlearned it yet.

We communicate with others in so many ways. In person, in the way we speak and write, through our websites, our Facebook pages, our emails, and our packaging. Just keep in mind that the human brain has been conditioned to look and listen for what is familiar and is suspicious of the sights and sounds it doesn't recognize. So whether you are an Indian programmer looking to do work in the United States, a Chinese engineer offering your services to companies in Brazil, or a hip-hop artist trying to sell records to a mainstream audience, you will be judged more by the way you sound, the way you speak, and the way you communicate, than you will by the color of your skin, who you date, or whether you have a Y chromosome.