Is this the number one thing that gets in the way of making progress?

Is this the number one thing that gets in the way of making progress?

Should your organisation get rid of cynicism?

“How do you get rid of cynicism in an organisation?”

This question was put to me recently by David, MD of an international sales organisation during a coaching session.

Why did he ask? Because "it's the number one thing that gets in the way of making progress"

The simple, task-driven answer would be to put in place activities to stop the cynicism. But to find a real solution, we need to look deeper and think differently. Our coaching session offered the opportunity to do that: a space to reflect, see significant issues from a different perspective and explore issues at a deeper level than there is time for during the cut and thrust of a busy operational environment.

To get to the heart of cynicism in David’s organisation, or any other, we need to make sure we ask the right questions rather than focussing entirely on solutions. The right questions reveal answers that may sometimes be uncomfortable but highly valuable.

Why does cynicism exist in any organisation?

There are many possible reasons, which will often co-exist.

·       Recruitment. Cynicism can be caused by lack of cultural fit in recruits.

·       The attitude of team leaders. The behaviours of any team will reflect those of their leader (though this may be different for autonomous teams).

·       The attitude of the organisation’s leaders. Team leaders’ behaviours will reflect those of their own leaders. This can be an unpalatable message: it’s difficult for leaders to see the connection between their attitude and others’ cynicism.

·       Broken promises, as people over-promise and under-deliver.

·       Change. Too much change, and change fatigue.

·       Not enough change

·       A ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude.

·       Lack of consequences and accountability. Cynicism thrives when individuals feel it does not matter if they do a good or a bad job.

Cynicism or scepticism?

Despite having so many possible causes, we often fail to identify cynicism because we don’t really understand what it is. It’s often confused with scepticism, but it is not the same. Scepticism has potential value where cynicism does not.

Cynicism is questioning with a closed mind, with no openness to curiosity or exploration.

Scepticism is questioning, but with an open mind. Like cynicism, it can feel uncomfortable. It challenges us when we don’t have the answers, and we often believe we should have the answer to everything. But good leaders recognise that isn’t always possible.


Are you confusing cynicism with scepticism? What you thought was cynicism may actually be:

·       Care for the customer, badly wrapped in poor language.

·       Exhaustion from trying to implement things that don't work.

·       Fatigue from dealing with processes that are inherently broken.

·       Disillusionment from listening to people in the hierarchy saying one thing and doing another.

·       A result of constantly changing priorities without clear vision or purpose.


What to do about cynicism

If you’ve identified genuine cynicism in your organisation, you need to identify why.

Sometimes, it’s not an organisational failure. If cynicism is linked only to a limited number of individuals, it may simply be that those individuals aren’t a good fit.

But often, the problem does lie deeper in the organisation. It can be hard to know how to address this without compromising healthy scepticism. You want and need to challenge your operations, culture, service and products.

How can you enable this without allowing people to slip into unhealthy cynicism? You don’t need, or want, picture-book harmony, but constructive debate, questioning and challenge.

There is a danger that by trying to address cynicism at a superficial level because you are frustrated with the impact that cynics have, you may end up:

·       Spotlighting cynicism.

·       Focusing on cynicism.

·       Appearing defensive.

Enabling debate and collaboration

Ask yourself the question:

"How do I enable a culture which supports debate and collaboration, rather than feeling frustrated at cynicism?"

The answer lies in the question. Create and nurture a culture in which there is a focus on the behaviours that you want, rather than the behaviours you don't want. 

So, change the question you ask to:

“How do we build trust?”

Focus on building a culture that supports trust, rather than on preventing cynicism. Culture is vital to success, because how we do things is at least as important as what we do. Culture is often overlooked, but it is vital to business.

Every organisation has a culture. You may not have fully recognised what your culture is yet, but it is undoubtedly there. Choosing to make your culture more intentional, with the involvement of your people, raises motivation, engagement and results.

Overwhelmingly, CEOs believe that a strong, healthy corporate culture is key to a strong, healthy business. A study of 1400 North American businesses found that the majority believed that culture influences “productivity, creativity, profitability, firm value and growth rates”.

Does culture get rid of cynicism?

David wanted to know how to get rid of cynicism. The answer is that he should not seek to do so, but should instead encourage the development of a culture that supports open-minded questioning.

When this is done successfully, cynicism will struggle to find a role. When leaders are open to challenge and change, there is little reason for those around them to become cynical.

David knew that his work was being blocked by cynicism, and so he naturally wanted to get rid of it. But by focussing on cynicism, he was unwittingly at risk of increasing its hold. If a cynic is told to stop being cynical, they’ll inevitably become more so.

If, like David, you want to get rid of cynicism, be brave. Create a vision that will help you develop a culture of openness, and trust in the strength of that culture. Don’t focus on identifying cynicism, or you risk unwittingly attacking the culture you seek to nourish. If people ask questions that feel cynical, react with openness and honesty.

Do you find cynicism tends to take hold in your organisation? Have you noticed when and how this happens, and what have you done to change it?

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