05/22/2012 10:20 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2012

The Loyalty Obsession, and Why It's Hurting Your Business

During many years as a media producer and consultant based in Los Angeles, one of the most frustrating challenges I've discovered within business is an overemphasis on loyalty. I know -- we all grew up with the understanding that loyalty was good -- one of the most important virtues. I was an Eagle scout, and the second law of the Boy Scout code is loyalty.

But today, too many organizations value loyalty to the extreme -- to the extent that many would rather hire or promote an extremely loyal person over someone more qualified. As a result, organizations are filled with employees who are very loyal, but sadly, incompetent. That's why I think it's time we took another look at the concept of loyalty -- particularly as it relates to employees.

How employees view their jobs has changed dramatically over the last 10-20 years. My father's generation were the "men in the gray flannel suits." They were team players, and kept their jobs for life. Most of my family worked in cotton mills throughout North Carolina, and worked at the same company their entire lives. It was understood that corporate loyalty overshadowed their own personal sense of fulfillment.

But a new generation views their working life through a far different lens. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker currently holds 10 different jobs before age 40. Job tenures now last less than four years. Some estimate that today's youngest workers will hold 12 to 15 jobs in their lifetimes. For a generation that's grown up with technology upgrades and media change, multiple variations of work environments comes easily. The bottom line? The world of work has changed dramatically in this culture, and as a result, employee expectations are different as well.

Today, employees care less about loyalty to an organization, and more about accomplishment. Finding a place where they can grow, explore their gifts and talents, and pursue significance, are far more important than blind loyalty. That doesn't necessarily mean they don't value their employer -- they just value accomplishment far more.

So in the new world of work, how can leaders change their attitudes toward employee loyalty?

First, understand that when an employee leaves your organization, it's not necessarily about you. He or she is not being spiteful, shunning your friendship, or disrespecting your authority. Today, only the most insecure leaders should feel hurt when employees move on to another company.

Second, understand that today, loyalty happens when employees can grow, exercise their gifts and talents, and explore possibilities for the future. For them, it's not about how long they stay at a single company, it's how much they can grow and expand their career. Their goal is not the organization, it's accomplishment.

Third, don't be offended if you discover an employee has been looking at other opportunities -- even if they've actually interviewed at other organizations. It's natural to wonder what's on the other side of the fence. Besides, if they discover a better fit somewhere else, why would you want to keep them? Certainly there may be confidentiality concerns or corporate privacy issues, but what's the point of forcing an employee to stay who's unhappy? Further, why lose the potential of a future relationship by firing them in anger? On the flip side, they might actually discover just how good their present job is, and re-commit with new energy and enthusiasm.

Fourth, make sure employees realize that your goal is to help them achieve the most from their working life. Make them feel at ease when talking to you about their job, and create an atmosphere where they'll be comfortable sharing their frustrations. That gives you a chance to make adjustments instead of losing a good employee.

Finally, if they decide to leave -- help them land on their feet. Early in my career, when it was time for me to leave my first job, the head of the organization offered to pick up the phone and call any company I wanted and personally recommend me. But today, instead of that gracious approach, most bosses take personal offense when an employee leaves. They refuse to take their calls, and treat them like a traitor.

Let's tone down the obsession with loyalty. Finding truly great employees is difficult, and the costs of re-training are high. Stop confusing loyalty and expertise. Find the most qualified employees you can, create an atmosphere where they can accomplish anything, and you'll find more loyalty than you know what to do with.