Loyalty, according to Dictionary.com, is defined as “the state or quality of being loyal; a feeling or attitude of devoted attachment and affection.” One can be loyal to his country, family, friends, or employer. Men have died, women have been slain, and children have been ravaged in the name of loyalty.

Family members have sacrificed and made irrational decisions for loved ones. Friends have taken bullets for one another despite having been stabbed in the back at one point or other. These are all highly personal situations when rationale falls by the wayside and emotions take over. In business, loyalty stems from the same seed but often takes on different proportions.

The first thing to remember is that respect and common sense are priceless traits in the workplace. This said, there is a difference between being loyal and being a sheep. So let’s take a look at both sides of the coin and see where your loyalties should lie.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you

First thing’s first: in business, family or friendship, the number one rule is to always be grateful when it comes to those who trust and ultimately help you. Your parents surely have done everything they could for you, so when the time comes to pay your dues, make sure your priorities are in order and you act maturely and wisely. An old and wise friend confided to me that the biggest mistake he made was blowing his savings on partying when he could have done something nice for his folks. Surely I of all people could not blame him for partying hard, but his words and regret will forever resonate in my mind.

The same applies to your employer. Yes I know, you are a superstar at work, but look around, most people are too. Surely one or two people in the company receive undeserved praise while you toiled away at work, but for the most part, they will get what they deserve in time.

Do not be too demanding and do not be a prima donna; if you stop tooting your own horn for a second, you will realize that most people in the company have a valid claim in being under-this and under-that. When the sun sets you will all be happy, so be humble and make sure that you never behave ungratefully for the opportunities that are presented to you.

Don’t be a doormat

This mentioned, it is crucial that you never let others walk all over you. Yes, you may love your job and take it with stride, but work is work, so make sure you are properly rewarded in terms of a paycheck, ownership (if applicable) and even more importantly, praise.

The key here is how you go about your concerns; it is okay to speak to a supervisor (who does not see you as a threat), or even the company head at small firms (this is even recommended, otherwise, you will see how quickly your concerns turn into a game of broken telephone gone awfully wrong). But whatever you do, do not bring this up at ill conceived times when business and standard operations are the issue, and not your diva demands (in your higher-ups’ eyes at least).

Also, truth be told, if you are entrusted with responsibilities, it’s because of your accomplishments and not out of your employers’ charity; you are, after all, helping them, and this should never be forgotten, no matter how much people tend to take things for granted. The rule here is to set matters straight from day one.

Being a pushover is one thing…

Question, don’t follow blindly

At a previous employer, I was repeatedly nominated for the “most likely to get tossed out of the building by security” award. Okay, that may be a stretch. But you see, I was the only one who ever questioned the CEO’s rationale. I was not even a VP then, I was hired to be a support person for the CEO and CFO, but I was more or less on even rank with the VPs.

So while they would — despite their tremendous experience, intelligence and personal relationship with the boss — accept things as “his company, his way,” I would occasionally question the CEO’s rationale, logic and assumptions. I figured if they are paying me to be here, I might as well be useful.

Of course, this is good in theory, but the CEO is CEO for a reason. So I don’t advise this to anyone who is averse to taking risks and doesn’t wish to risk losing his job because of saying something to the boss when he is not in the best of moods… Hey, stuff happens.

You got a minute?

But this is not what happened to me. After some time, the boss sees that you mean well, are not there to bust his chops and actually drops by your office to ask a question or two. Of course, the staff thinks he is coming over to give you the boot, but hey, who cares what X says and Y thinks when you have work to do, right?

Ultimately, I left that company for other reasons, on rather good terms. But I have not changed my ways. I now work with a rather interesting group of young men and women, and I still find myself voicing my opinions. Sometimes I am right, and quite frankly, sometimes I turn out to be quite wrong. Obviously, you should never rub it in when you are right, but do admit that you are wrong when this is so.

The key is that the person you are questioning must know why you are questioning them. One should never play devil’s advocate 24 hours a day, but rather, one should be selective in matters that he truly believe could make the company better. As cheesy as it sounds, if your concerns, worries and questions are attempts to improve the company, even the largest shareholder will like you, and if this happens to be the CEO or President, then you are definitely doing the right thing — at least subconsciously (and consciously when you write these kinds of articles).

Consequences of a voice

Of course, GE Capital’s former head, Gary Wendt, was the only man ever to “talk back” to General Electric Chief Jack Welch, and despite contributing roughly 40% (at least) of GE’s total profits for so many years, Wendt’s voiced concerns and opinions ultimately led to his departure from GE Capital (and General Electric).

So I guess despite feeding General Electric’s Welch, and providing him with the fuel to conquer the world and reclaim the status as the world’s most valuable company, Neutron Jack ultimately chewed off Wendt’s hand.

I smell a rat

Of course, the previous points relate to an employee who truly has good, pure intentions; sadly, in business, you always have the rotten apples that almost make bad apples taste sweet. In business, you have rats and snakes to fill this space. They are everywhere; I can spot a rat or snake the second I walk into a room. To this day, I have never been wrong on this matter.

In life, rats and snakes are easy to spot and no one will doubt that you see one. However, in business they do not manifest themselves in the same way; as a result, you are better off not pointing them out, but working with them. These creatures have a tendency to talk behind your back, keep things from you and go out of their way to waste your time in their quest for personal gain over the greater good.

Much like chameleons, they take on any form to blend in and get on the good side of people. Rats and snakes are actually very different in nature and usually have very different fates, but for the sake of this article, you can lump them in the same category under poison.

There are rats lurking everywhere…

Who smells a rat?

Rats and snakes are also the most likely to bolt from one team or company and go to the competition. And sadly, in a time when non-disclosure agreements and anti-competition clauses hold little water and are so easy to shatter even in a court of law, you are seeing more and more of such disloyal behavior.

Do not confuse rats and snakes with enforcers or “bad cops,” or as I like to call them, foxes (and I am not referring to the fox variety that is found in AskMen.com’s Top 50 Most Beautiful Women). Foxes are sharp, cunning, sly, and coy; they are actually good guys that you love to have on your team rather than the opposing team.

Every team, be it in a business, athletics, family, or social setting needs such a role player. They are rather valuable and while they may be seen as rats or snakes, they aren’t, despite occasionally showing such tendencies (especially in the eyes of the opposing team). Such people have probably met their own share of rats and snakes (or fox hunters), so they have a hardened, thick skin.

But watch out; the average eye cannot decipher between the rats/snakes and foxes, only someone who has met, worked, and been bitten can.

Unless you are the lion (CEO), you can’t do much about rats or snakes. So just focus on your job and take notes so that when you have your own company (assuming you ever want to), you’ll spot them the second they walk through the door and use your rat trap. For the record, I do not place myself in any of these categories.

Where do your loyalties lie?

When I began to write this piece, I expected my conclusion to be different. But as I was thinking of past experiences at school, previous jobs and current personal situations, I realized that your loyalty should lie with yourself . After all, everyone’s loyalties lie with themselves, so why should you be any different? This may be hard for some, especially those who put their own health, benefit and situation behind those of others.

The term loyalty comes from monarchies. Traditional monarchies have failed over time, and the only kingdom that should matter these days is your own “kingdom” (read: life). The difference is not in where the loyalties lie anyhow, but what you, as monarch, want in your kingdom.

The loyalties of rats and snakes lie with themselves as well. Their intentions are usually selfish, corrupt, trivial, and at times malicious. Their kingdom is a tyranny based on corruption, inequality and injustice. While you may not want such poison in life, in professional circles, their interest in the business is usually material. It is for this reason that they can, in a twisted sort of irony, actually help the company in the short term; in the long term, they will infect it.

King of the castle

Conversely, if you are an unselfish person who seeks to build a better life for yourself, family, friends, colleagues, and country, then your goals will be pure ones that you set out and envision. Your monarchy will be an ideal state; a utopia of sorts, much like in Plato’s Republic .

Of course, such ideal places only work in theory, not in practice. It is for this reason that you should be loyal to yourself. Since your goals and happiness are based on improving things for those that you care for, it is only by being loyal to yourself that you will make those around you happy, at least in the long term. Makes sense? Probably not, but nothing in business (or in life) does.

No one is saying to be unfaithful to your family, friends, colleagues, or even your country, but you should look out for yourself first and foremost. Until next time, take it easy and watch your back. Take a look at history and business, and you will see that a sad fate awaited those who had too much loyalty to their country and employer.

Ash Karbasfrooshan is also the author of Course To Success, available at www.CourseToSuccess.com.