The Scourge of Cynicism

I hate cynicism. It is like cancer to the human soul. It is especially deadly when it infects an organization.

Doctors Performing an Operation - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/LionHector, Image #8683429

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/LionHector

I thought we had pretty much eliminated it from Thomas Nelson. I was hoping the disease was in remission. But, this morning I discovered that it is still alive and well—at least in parts of our company. (In order to protect the guilty, I won’t give any details.) The worst part is that a few of our leaders are manifesting symptoms of the disease.

Dictionary.com defines a cynic as

a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.”

It defines cynical as

1. like or characteristic of a cynic; distrusting or disparaging the motives of others; 2. showing contempt for accepted standards of honesty or morality by one’s actions, esp. by actions that exploit the scruples of others; or 3. bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic.”

How do you know if you are infected? There are at least three symptoms:

  1. Distrust of others. This is where it begins. The cynic is unwilling to trust anyone else. Maybe their trust was abused in the past. Maybe they were hurt. Regardless, they find it difficult to trust anyone. Instead, the cynic is always suspicious. He always looks behind the apparent good for a negative cause. Consequently, he questions other people’s motives, competence, or experience—sometimes all three.
  2. Negative comments about others. This naturally follows from the first symptom. The cynical person has to give expression to their distrust. As a result, they often whisper negative comments in meetings, usually under the guise of humor. It’s a low-risk—though cowardly way—to try and build rapport with others. No one wants to be thought naive, so people usually agree with the cynic and chuckle at the person or situation that is the object of the cynic’s ridicule. This is how the cancer spreads.
  3. Pessimism about the future. The cynic can never be positive about the future. That would involve trust or faith. And this is the antithesis of cynicism. Again, it is a low-risk behavior. The cynic thinks, why risk belief? I might be wrong. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are probably right.” Cynicism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Cynicism can be cured, but it takes a lot of work. You have to triage the situation. The hardened cynics can rarely be helped. They are committed to their cynicism as a way of life. Any attempt to help them only leads to more cynicism. They like their disease. The only cure is surgery. They must be removed from the organization, so that it can heal. The sooner you fire them the better.

The soft cynics are a different story. They can get better with the right treatment. If you are a leader, here is what you can do:

  1. Live by your word. People need to know that they can trust you. Do not fuel their cynicism by doing anything that would break trust. If you do break trust, then apologize and make it right. People are desperate to follow leaders who are trustworthy. Determine that you will be a leader people can count on.
  2. Speak well of others. Purpose that you will not speak ill of someone unless you are talking to that person in a private conversation. If someone else speaks ill of someone in your presence, change the subject. Refuse to chuckle. Do not reward the behavior in any way. Ignore it, and it will eventually die. Acknowledge it—in any way—and it will persist.
  3. Look on the sunny side. Organizations are full of nay-sayers. Anyone can see the downside. That’s the easy part. However, it takes creativity and faith to see the upside and affirm it. I’m not talking about becoming a Pollyanna. That doesn’t help either. Instead, I am advocating fact-based optimism. If your confidence in the future is rooted in reality, you have a decent chance of infecting others with belief and trust. And, that is what empowers an organization to achieve great things.

I don’t know of any hardened cynics at Thomas Nelson, but I now know of a few soft cynics. I am going to do my best to try and affect them in a positive way. But, as Barney Fife used to say, “You have to nip it in the bud.” You can’t afford to let the disease go untreated.

Question: Do you have cynicism in your organization? Are you part of the problem or part of the solution? What are you going to do about it?
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  • http://www.motiveight.com Kyle Chowning

    Wow. I don’t work at TN, but if I did, I would be checking and double checking my perspective, attitude and actions to make sure I didn’t fall in line with a cynic.

    Well said Mike. Your point was heard loud and clear.

  • http://thedoubleu.blogspot.com Thom

    Well, Kyle, I do and am. There were times in my life that cynicism and sarcasm were characteristic of me. Cynicism is, after all, what hope does when it has been disappointed too many times. This post–one of the boldest I have ever read–is a call to wake up and check one’s character. Am I hoping? How often am I energized about a vision? Am I doing something with and for others? I’m sure taking my pulse.

  • http://emuelle1.blogspot.com Eric S. Mueller

    I got an interesting perspective from Chuck Missler. What is the difference between a pessimist and an optimist? The pessimist has more information. That is cynicism at it’s finest. However, the optimist is uncertain about the future, and it is that uncertainty that we can have hope and act for the better.

    Cynicism truly is a self-fulfilling prophesy, and a cancer. For some reason, being cynical seems easier. I guess because no real work, thought, or dreaming is required to be a cynic.

  • Anonymous

    I think this is an excellent post and I am encouraged to hear this from our leadership. Cynicism is something many of us fight against daily. I pray that we become the company you envision. I know I will continue to do my part. I am excited about the future of this organization under your leadership and the great things we will accomplish when we truly become a people of faith (in every area of our lives).

  • Regular Visitor

    Good post, Mike.

    I have a feeling that the “soft cynics” at TN definitely got the message. All smiles and positivity from now on, I bet.

    Same for those of us on the outside looking in. A little dose of encouragement never hurts.

  • Anonymous

    I do work at Thomas Nelson and to be honest I have had quite a few encounters with the hardened cynic in this company. Unfortunately, their behavior seems to be encouraged, not discouraged, by the leaders above them. Some, but not all, of the leaders I’ve encountered fail to honor their word, speak well of others or look for the positive side of the situation. Given that leaders exhibit such behavior, I’m not surprised that their subordinates do as well.

    The transformation that needs to occur will have to come from both the bottom and the top of the organization if any real strides are to be made. Thanks you Mike for initiating the change from the top. Here’s hoping the transformation that results is both deep and wide.

  • Anonymous

    What a powerful (and long overdue) post! I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist…I count myself as a realist. But the very thing that makes me want to come to work each day is hope for the future. How do those without hope (or at the very least, a positive vision of the future) make it through the work day, and why would they come back for another if their forecast was so bleak?
    Trust me, people look at the leadership for buy-in on your vision. Upper management should be the model for the values that you aspire to instill company-wide. Top level cynicism will empower other cynics down the chain of command and make elimination of that behavior impossible.

  • Heidi

    A good reminder that cynicism is similar to despair. As Marilla Cuthbert said to Anne of Green Gables: “To despair is to turn your back on God.” Despair can creep into my consciousness when I don’t have the right focus and hope (about all things in life.)

  • Anonymous

    Being a Nelson employee I am encouraged to hear that you feel so strongly about cycncism. I look forward to the day when your vision for our company’s culture can flow unfiltered down to the employees at all levels of the company. We have made great progress because of your leadership and I am hopeful that the culture you envision will become a reality. Thank you for tackling these issues head on. As others that commented have pointed out, I feel that there may be a few more hardened cynics at Nelson than we would hope for. I will start with myself to make sure that I am part of the solution and not the problem. As was previously mentioned, employees do look to senior leadership for buy-in. This shift from cynicism will need to come from both directions.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    I appreciate all the comments. It sounds like we have quite a bit of work to do!

  • Anonymous

    When I came to Thomas Nelson – bright eyed and full of optimism – I was immediately met with not only cynicism, but downright stubborness and denial about how the real world runs a business. Many of our leaders, both new and long-term, seem to think that they are above reproach and there is no room for improvement. Rather than digging in the dirt hoping to grow a better tree, let’s start sculpting it from the top down. There’s a lot of dead leaves than can be shaken from this tree.

  • Anonymous

    I have worked at TN in the past and can distinctly remember encounters with folks who were not trustworthy or worthy of respect and helped to create a cynical attitude amongst those they encountered. I am encouraged, however, to see that being addressed and I pray for the good of the company that these efforts are successful.

    TN is a GREAT company that has so much potential.

  • http://www.creoproductions.blogspot.com Aaron Carriere

    I agree with the post. I reviewed a book called ‘Seeing Through Cynicism,’ where author Dick Keyes described one symptom of cynicism as the inability to recognize beauty.

    As people responsible for communicating truth and beauty in various forms, the inability to recognize good is fatal.

  • http://building-his-body.blogspot.com/ Anne Lang Bundy

    There is never an excuse for a Christian to express pessimism or be a negative influence.

    Having followed your blog, I know your attempts to quash cynicism are not attempts to quash constructive expression of dissent—a good distinction for an effective leader to make.

  • http://michellependergrass.com Michelle Pendergrass

    Thank you.

    Left unchecked my cynicism often gets the best of me.

  • http://www.avasemerau.com Ava Semerau

    I have printed this out and now have it in my Bible. This is an issue our blended family is dealing with and your words and suggestions could not have come at better time. Praise God for Deena’s link to you which sent me here!

    Ava

  • http://www.biznesor.pl biznes

    Very good post. People should have optimistic view on the surrounding world.

  • http://www.harbourlightchurch.co.uk paul

    @MichaelHyatt loved your article on cynicism, i believe there is a cycle of cynicism that starts with us judging others then having to live by the standard we set them and failing adding to our cynicism. As if we can't manage to meet our standards how can anyone else.

    Judge not lest ye be judged.

  • http://www.sweetwrites.com Sweetie Berry

    In my experience providing strategies for goverment, school, and business venues on how to achieve unity in the workplace, cynicism is indeed one of the strongest battles in the workplace employers face. The focus from the workers’ perspective is that “their facts and experience simply overwhelm the opportunity for change” what is not often realized however, is that perspective and outcomes are extremely dependent upon choosing to focus on goals, not the past, not the problems, not the obstacles between point a and point b. Mary Kay Ashe taught her consultants that whatever you think about your business you are….if you think it is hopeless, it is. If you think you have opportunities you do….My work involves helping people identify what they focus on, how they think, and the focus of their thinking…..very often if we truly look at their belief systems regarding work…we can repair and create new perspectives with a gained sense of purpose…and a unified commitment to focus on the next step to accomplishing the measureable goals at hand instead of spinning on company time creating strife and stalling company movement. If one is not willing to buy into and support the leadership’s goals for a company, indeed its time for them to find a new company!

    GREAT post!

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  • http://twitter.com/katdish @katdish

    I actually feel sorry for cynics. What a sad way to go through life – thinking that every kind word or deed has an ulterior motive. The world is a terrible place, but there is beauty and goodness to be found if we only seek it out.
    My recent post Kindness

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  • http://www.themotherlode.wordpress.com Theresa Lode

    I will be mulling this one over today quite a bit, I'm sure. I struggle with cynicism, especially with all that's gone on in the political arena. When I find myself getting more this way, I know it's time to turn off the TV, talk a walk, etc, etc. When I'm fatigued I'm most vulnerable.
    Thanks for the powerful encouragement. I enjoy reading your blog and gleaning from your wisdom.
    My recent post Do you use the “D” word in your home?

    • http://www.flurrycreations.com/theblog John

      I’m with you Theresa. I am glad @kylechowning re-posted this. I had not read it before and it was a great way to begin a Monday. I admit Mike that I can be a soft cynic. (I think we all can) I spent the weekend with some soft cynics and it is a cancer that touches all of those that come in contact with it. In Seth Godin’s Linchpin he has a great quote “Don’t listen to the cynics. They’re cynics for a reason. For them the resistance won out a long time ago.” The resistence being everything that keeps us from Glory.

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  • Anon

    Wow! You don’t pull your punches!

    I fear I am a cynic, but I didn’t know that the definition of the word implied always a distrust of others’ motives, which sounds quite an unpleasant characteristic. What if a person simply doesn’t have faith in a ‘religion’ that everyone else believes in wholeheartedly?

    In my case that religion is economic growth. I see our prosperity (in the West) as as much to do with a Ponzi-style bubble of debt and the plundering of free, concentrated energy in the form of oil (supply now levelling off) as it is to do with human ingenuity and free market capitalism. As such, I find myself inwardly doubting my colleagues’ faith in a ‘better tomorrow’ – although I try to present a cheery outward appearance.

    A secondary strand of my cynicism is to inwardly wince at the idea of creating artificial demand for something essentially useless through advertising etc. and then using real resources (energy, materials, people’s time) to create and sell it. As you can imagine, this limits the level of enthusiasm I can muster when working in certain industries.

    I don’t think I could be educated out of my cynicism. Does this mean I should be fired immediately?

    • http://twitter.com/DragonflyBlue9 Summer

       actually i wouldn’t consider your “secondary strand” cynicism at all, actually the fact that you cringe means you know its wrong. thats not cynicism, thats a sense of morality. and if you don’t believe in what your company does then your enthusiasm will of course be diminished. no you shouldn’t be fired immediately, if you are uncomfortable with your job, i would start looking for another but not quitting your current job, after all in the case you dont find anything you should have something to fall back on however unpleasant. this is just my opinion though, dont just take my word for it, as i dont have much experience. but this is just what i think.

  • http://twitter.com/DragonflyBlue9 Summer

     i dont know if i am a cynic, but i may be becoming one i fear. my mom is a cynic, at least i think so, but i am not sure. she can be pessimistic about the future but still tries to believe things will get better, but she believes the only way things will get better and for her to be happy is to somehow win the lottery. she is pessimistic about most other things, and is almost exactly as the description says above. this doesn’t mean she cant ever be optimistic, but she doesn’t trust anyone, and she thinks most people are fake. well she thinks a lot of things, i wont go into those things, but they do fit the cynic description well. now however i find myself starting to adopt similar ways of thinking. i have always thought that i would NEVER be a cynic, and i still have very opposing views to my mom. i will take the steps above to help myself from becoming a cynic, and if i am not becoming cynical now then at least i wont become one if i keep this in mind. most of the time when i “act” cynical its really only to make myself not seem naive to my mom, if i am alone or with friends though i dont act like this, if i do its out of bad habit which i plan to break.

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

      Summer, that is something I struggle with as well. You’re well on the way to overcoming it because you NOTICE it. Keep knocking it down and you’ll eventually overcome it.

  • Lizzie_cernik

    But cynicism can be hilarious. It’s a huge part of British humour and without it, we wouldn’t have Charlie Brooker. I admit there’s a line, but without a bit of healthy cynicism we’d be getting ripped off all over the place. Just take it with a pinch of salt and laugh. Most of it’s just dry sarcastic humour.

    • Michael

      No, cynicism is looking at the world with clear eyes, telling it like it is, and not pretending everything is perfect. It isn’t pessimism, it’s understanding what is actually going on and not acting like mindless sheep.

    • anonymous

      You wish that it is. But for me, my kind of cynicism doesn’t exactly have humor in it, especially since many people use humor as an excuse to antagonize.

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  • blobface

    “He always looks behind the apparent good for a negative cause. ”

    Criticising that aspect of someone is practically the same as criticising someone for their lack of belief in God. To automatically assume someone is doing good solely for a “positive” cause requires believing in something without any shred of evidence. Why should anyone take a default assumption that all acts are carried out for default reasons? If you do not know a person well, or at all, and they do something nice to you, it’s either a genuine act or with motives that ultimately has self interests in mind. Whichever it might be, it’d be completely silly to rule out the “alternate” motive.

    If the weather is capable of being rainy, then it’d be completely pointless to just assume it’s going to be sunny all the time just because it’s “nicer” to do so.

  • anonymous

    So you don’t like cynics, eh? Since you don’t, I found a guy who goes by the alias BigCynic. And this a terrible website that he made:

    http://www.angelfire.com/tx/bigcynic/main.html

    if you got to that site of the BigCynic, you’ll see how many prejudiced stuff the posted. And boy, is he a liar?

    One of the ways that the BigCynic is biased is that the hates anyone who isn’t like him. Now isn’t that closed-minded?

    If you won’t stand for the BigCynic’s cynicism, delusions, bias, and fibs, then you can try to e-mail him. To look for his e-mail address, you can go to that site of his and scroll to its bottom until you see it (the address).

    One of other thing about the BigCynic is that he has another e-mail address. And here it is:

    arbitum.bibindo@usa.net

    Good luck if you’ll contact that antagonist.