3 Ways to Treat the Scourge of Cynicism

What to Do if Your Organization Is Infected with the Disease

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

A few years into my tenure as the CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, I thought we had pretty much eliminated it from our company. I was hoping the disease was in remission. But, one morning I discovered that it was still alive and well—at least in parts of the company. The worst part was that a few of our leaders were 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 show them the door 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.

Thankfully, I didn’t have any hardened cynics at Thomas Nelson (at least that I was aware of), but I did have a few soft cynics. I did my best to try and affect them in a positive way. 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?