Spiral of Cynicism, Skepticism, Suspicion– Eroding Trust in Business: Cynicism Has Power to Demoralize Organizations…

Cynicism places cynics at the center seat of judgment with the self-appointed authority to criticize and condemn. ~Jayce O’Neal… Cynicism and foul language are the only vices I’m presently capable of… everything else takes energy or money. ~Mary Doria Russell

Cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of just about everything, including; business, organizations, government, institutions, people… it’s a form of jaded negativity. The dictionary (Merriam-Webster) defines a cynic as ‘one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest.’ This should not be confused with a ‘skeptic’, defined as ‘an attitude of doubt’.  

The term cynicism derives from ancient Greek philosophers called ‘cynics’ who rejected all conventions, such as; religion, manners, decency… advocating pursuit of virtue in a simple and non-materialistic lifestyle. By the 19th century, emphasis on negative aspects of ‘cynic philosophy’ led to modern understanding of cynicism to mean; a disposition of disbelief in sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. Research indicates that cynicism is on the rise especially in business, which increasingly hurts competitiveness and ability to accommodate today’s needed organizational changes.

Philip H. Mirvis, and Professor Donald L. Kanter found in their national survey that 43% of workers and 40% of managers are cynical. Mirvis and Kanter are careful throughout their work noting that cynicism is different from skepticism; they say, skepticism is a healthy response to work and life. Further, skeptics are open to change whereas, cynics are not.

According to Goldner, Ritti, and Ference; they suggest– as organizations become more complex, members become often more cynical. This does not bode well, considering organizations are indeed becoming more complex as they struggle to respond to increased competition, technologies, diverse work forces…

Mirvis and Kanter further explain that the recipe for cynicism is simply; hype up people’s hopes, disappoint them, then take advantage of them until they become disillusioned. In their later study Mirvis and Kanter state key ingredients for cynicism: 1) unrealistically high expectations of oneself and others, 2) experience of disappointment in oneself and others [i.e., resulting feelings of frustration and defeat!], 3) disillusionment from and being deceived by others.

In the article Beyond Cynicism by ‘psychologyforbusiness’ writes:  There are certainly no shortage of targets for the cynics in our current economy. The woes of Wall Street, the scandals from the corporate board rooms, and the posturing of politicians trying to get votes give us plenty of reason to be distrusting of the rhetoric we hear on a national level.

On a local level, we might wonder if our own organizations have fallen victim to the ‘infectious greed’ that Alan Greenspan warned us about. Whether it’s the leaders of the company complaining that the work ethic has changed for today’s employees or whether it’s the workers feeling used by an organization that does not seem to care about them, the attitudes toward our local situation can be as jaded as they are toward the nation as a whole…

Cynicism is really a reaction to loss. It is not a loss of something material, but of something that is lost within our soul. We are angry because this is not the way the world ‘should’ be. But our experience tells us that the world is not just. Our experience also warns us that we are not powerful enough to change it. And so we surrender to the cynical. In the short-term, cynicism keeps us alert to the potential dangers that lurk from the individuals and organizations that try to manipulate us into believing what they say while distracting us from what they do. It’s long-term effects of cynicism that pose the real danger.

Cynicism reminds us that the world is unjust and that we are powerless to change it. The first half of this sentence is indisputable: The experience of injustice in the world is the experience of virtually everyone. Cynicism assumes the second half of the sentence: It takes the form of a belief about our self. Psychological research has shown conclusively, that our beliefs about ourselves have a self-fulfilling quality about them. In other words, if I believe that I am powerless, then I will act as if that is true. The more cynical we become the more we surrender our own personal power. That is the true danger of the cynical attitude. It clogs the arteries of our soul...

In the article How to Combat Cynicism by American Management Association writes: If unchecked, cynicism has power to demoralize a workplace. Cynicism is not indifference or disengagement: In eyes of cynics– motions toward positive change and organization development are doomed from start. They have even lost faith in what organization has to offer.

It’s important to understand that the majority of workplace cynics are not cynics by nature, but instead either organizational or managerial let-downs have made them so. As a manager, what can you do? Many managers don’t realize that cynicism can actually benefit a company. Your cynics will provide a different perspective, question the status quo, and despite their brash attitude, may represent a number of people who do not wish to speak up.

They will never be short of criticism and problems to identify…but the key is moving them from criticism to action. Be up front: Listen to their grievances and figure out if their cynicism is justifiable or not. If the problem is legitimate then ask them how they would combat it. If the problem is minor explain to them that it’s just not priority right now, and show them why. If you highlight a bigger issue and then ask their opinion, this will let them know that their view is valued, and also give you some new insight…

In the article Managing Cynicism Toward Organizational Change by Ligaya M. Menguito writes:  Most, if not all, organizations will undergo change during its lifetime. This comes as response to changes in its markets, such as; technology advancement, globalization…, which pressure an organization to adapt and remain competitive. Given risks involved, it’s important that employees commit and contribute to transformational efforts. However, not all employees buy in to the idea of change. One reason for this is their cynicism toward the change effort.

Cynical employees usually consider a change program as useless due to a past experience of failed change initiative. Having leaders who fail to show transformation leadership behaviors is also believed to contribute to employee cynicism. Leaders who fail to have knowledge, abilities, and actions that demonstrate their worth as torch-bearer of the company’s change efforts makes employees think that they are incompetent and the change effort futile. Interestingly, having leaders who show transformational leadership behaviors don’t seem to curb cynicism among their employees, either.

These are behaviors demonstrated by leaders that are aimed to make their employees look beyond their self-interest and instead focus on the good of the organization. This may include; setting the vision for their employees or motivating and inspiring them with the desired change. One likely explanation for its failure to curb cynicism among the employees is the possibility that employees still give more importance to their own needs than that of the organization and don’t yet see how helping the organization can also be beneficial for them.

Another possible reason is that perhaps, cynicism is a trait inherent in the employee. Eradicating or even minimizing this might require more than the role modeling of their leader but would instead demand a more conscious, internal effort on the employee. Employee cynicism is not easy to eliminate or ignore but it can be managed…

It’s important to understand the cynic’s outlook on life, namely: They see selfishness and guile at the base of human nature… that people tell lies if they can gain by it… that people pretend to care more than they really do… Recent events with financial firms, mortgage brokers, banks… have contributed to an ever-growing cynicism and even a sense of futility about the values and ethics of global business institutions.

Research over the past 20 years shows that confidence in business has fallen from 70% to 15%, and ratings of management competence and trust have fallen almost as much for workers… According to Deirdre Wilson, increased disillusionment is hurting U.S. business’ competitive edge, as businesses struggle to remain competitive, and organizational change efforts are often blocked by cynical managers.

A good summary description of cynics comes from Mirvis and Kanter: Cynics agree that lying, putting on a false face, and taking advantage of others are fundamental to human character and conclude that, basically, people are just out for themselves, and that such cynical attitudes about life are paralleled in attitudes about work. Cynicism leads to generalized mistrust of authority, disparagement of management communications and directions, and ultimately to denigration of leadership and mission of the enterprise…

Leadership must address this increasing cynicism by managing more fairly, and operating in an open, honest, straightforward, realistic manner… Employees must be able to participate in governance, provide regular reality checks to management, have positive role models, and perceive an open and honest pay system. Most important, give employees something to believe in… So what are business leaders to do, particularly when it comes to values and ethics? How can leaders address and counter this sense of futility?

According to Neil Ducoff: If accountability is leadership watchword – cynicism is forever the nemesis. Once cynicism takes hold it burrows deep in leadership thinking and behavior… Purge-it, now. Recognize cynical thoughts, e.g.: This won’t work. We tried that before. They don’t care. They’re lazy. I can’t do that. They’ll never finish it on time. We won’t make it. This thinking leads to defeat, erodes confidence, and feeds resentment. The secret to banishing cynical thoughts are– go positive, inspire, innovate…

Cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. ~Stephen Colbert