Cynicism can be a valuable organisational ‘watch dog’

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Last week it was interesting to listen to the range of views being shared by leaders from different organisations discussing cynicism amongst people in some parts of their organisations and whether cynicism is a good or a bad thing in an organisation.

The cynicism they were referring to, for the most part, is organisational cynicism. Organisational cynicism is neither wholly good nor bad, however it can be valuable as an organisational ‘watch dog’.  Many times organisations set out to eradicate cynicism by making it wrong for people to hold such views. In trying to eradicate it what leaders are doing is providing conditions for it to grow. The presence of cynicism in organisations tells us something.

Sure, some people may come to an organisation with levels of personal cynicism but most don’t.  Organisational cynicism is different to personal cynicism; cynicism in organisations is people’s defence mechanism to feeling insecure, it develops over time and is a response to perceived organisational injustice that causes people to lose trust as they harbour a sense that they have been taken advantage of in relation to a range of issues e.g. change that is poorly led and managed, poor leadership in a range of situations and the perceived fairness of decisions and allocation of resources relating to them, broken commitments, lack of meaningful work, and underutilisation of their skills.

The overt expression of cynicism by people is signalling their displeasure and disappointment with what is happening and that they feel ‘let down’ by their leaders and their organisation.  This expression is a clear signal that they are beginning to disengage and reduce their discretionary effort. The reason for their overt expressions of their cynicism is that they want attention because at some deeper level they don’t want to disengage as they still have the passion, care, and desire, to see the company succeed.  In this expressive action cynics are signalling that something must change.

Rather than make them wrong for being cynical or try to remove it, as leaders we need to work with it because when people who harbour cynicism towards your organisation turn around, they turn 180° and become advocates.

Overcoming cynicism involves:

  • Recognising there is a problem and initiating steps to find and address the ‘root cause’, bearing in mind it might be as simple as correcting a misunderstanding or misinformation that has evolved over time. In one instance we found the cynicism was anchored to a situation that had occurred almost five years prior and rather than being addressed it had been ignored in the hope it would go away;
  • If injustices are exposed be prepared to discuss and resolve the situation by being open and willing to hear the truth even though all parties involved may not like hearing it;
  • Decide on a course that has genuine agreement and commitment from all parties. Go after the ‘low hanging fruit’  to address the situation and begin to rebuild trust;
  • Ensure any corrective action agreed is sustainable and delivered in line with the expectations of all parties. Don’t commit to anything that can’t be delivered or sustained.  Remember that the cynic will be looking for proof from two perspectives:
    • The agreed action is real and sustainable and trust can begin to be rebuilt;
    • Evidence that actions being taken are a ‘token gesture’ and not genuine and therefore their cynicism should be maintained;
  • Only when people see evidence of change through these initial small steps can larger more vexing issues that may need time to be addressed be actioned.

While less harmful than overt negativity and apathy, cynicism is a red flag that something is awry in your organisation and if not addressed has the potential to spread and undermine your organisation’s culture. When the watch dog barks we should investigate.

Vivente Australia enables leaders and managers develop the bond between people and performance, creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its best.