I doubt that any statue has ever been dedicated to “The World’s Greatest Cynic,” although I think we can all say we’ve met some people who could qualify for that title. The fact is that most organizations have their share of cynics—people who believe that “human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest.” In the work setting, this fundamental attitude plays out in negative attitudes toward the organization, its leaders, its mission, and its everyday practices.
One interesting review of research on cynicism in organizations points out that despite their negative attitudes, “a cynic can continue to function in most organizations, conducting the day-to-day duties of his or her role. Depending on the nature of how they implement their cynical views and motives, they may even advance up the corporate ladder, based on effective finger-pointing and back-biting.”
The same review also notes that “the effect of cynicism can be disastrous, particularly if the cynic is a manager”… that cynical managers “insidiously instill cynicism in their employees and organizational culture”…and finally that “none of this makes for effective member participation in organizational change efforts.”
So let’s say you’ve committed yourself to driving some much needed change in your organization—whether that’s a small unit or an entire enterprise. You’re deeply dissatisfied with some aspect of the organization’s practice and performance, and you’ve found that others are similarly dissatisfied, to the point where there’s some real momentum for change. You’ve forged a vision of what that change will look like, created a plan for how to make it happen, and maybe even identified one or two “first steps” that will get the plan moving forward.
The problem is that the cynics will be there waiting for you. Openly or behind the scenes, they will argue that the change is unnecessary or doomed to fail. They will badmouth the proposed change effort as “just another program of the month.” They will gripe about how the change will make their lives and that of other employees more difficult. They will challenge your sincerity, your reasons for wanting the change to happen. Obviously, none of this is helpful.
If your organization is riddled with cynicism, then that’s what has to change, before anything else can happen. And turning that kind of situation around is never easy. The review quoted earlier cites research suggesting that “organizations must address this increasing cynicism by managing more fairly, and operating in an open, honest, straightforward, and particularly, realistic manner.” And if you’ve been following this blog or if you’ve read my book—The Engaged Enterprise: A Field Guide for the Serving Leader—you know that I believe that adopting the principles of servant leadership is a great first step toward building an organization that is resistant to cynicism.
On the other hand, if the cynics represent only a small minority in your organization, you can probably bypass them on your way to achieving a successful change initiative, so long as you get the rest of the organization on board—and that brings me to the critical distinction between cynics and skeptics.
Unlike the cynics, skeptics want the organization to be successful. They haven’t given up on the mission. They don’t believe that all change is bad, that all change initiatives are doomed to failure. On the other hand, they won’t necessarily be convinced right out of the box that you’ve got it right. They need to be convinced—and that’s a good thing.
We need skeptics because they ask good questions to keep us honest and on track. They force us to take another look at our plans, to see if we have this change well thought out. They test our commitment, and push us to make sure that what we’re proposing isn’t just another fad. So, if you can pass the test—if you can make a compelling case for the change your organization needs to make—then the skeptics will have done their job and they’ll give you their support.
And the cynics? They may change over time, as the organization changes. Or they may decide that the organization is not the right place for them. Or the organization may decide that it’s time for them to move on.
But let me be clear about all this. Change is hard. Dealing with cynics is hard. Depending on the size of the change you’re proposing, the noise from those cynics can get pretty loud. If you feel yourself getting discouraged by all this, let me suggest that you turn to Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments, written by Dr. Kent Keith back in 1969 when he was a sophomore at Harvard. Kent, whom I am privileged to call a friend, went on to become a university president, author, and CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Over the years, his “paradoxical commandments” have inspired people all over the world, including many well-known political, business, and religious leaders. Mother Theresa kept them posted on the door of her school.
Here a few of Kent’s commandments that seem especially relevant to me when it comes to dealing with the cynical side of human nature:
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with smallest minds. Think big anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
In other words, when you encounter the cynics sitting on the sidelines and trying to keep your organization from becoming its best self, take comfort in the intrinsic value and reward of just trying to do the right thing.
With that in mind, I’d like to leave you with a famous quote from Teddy Roosevelt. It comes from a speech TR gave in Paris back in 1910, about a year after he finished his second term as President. Roosevelt was a man of his times, and in his speech he referred to the “man” in the arena, but there’s no question that his words apply to anyone, male or female, who chooses to “dare greatly:”
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
I’ve never seen a statue dedicated to the world’s greatest cynic, but I have seen statues dedicated to those who strove for excellence and spent themselves in a worthy cause. So don’t let the cynics stand in your way!