Cynicism has a bad name in management and some even call it a “cancer in your organisation”. In my view, most people are a bit too cynical about cynicism. Cynics are often valuable assets in corporations.1
The word Cynic is derived from the ancient Greek word for dog. The cynic might be a dog but is certainly not a lapdog. The cynic can be the guard dog for organisations. Philosophical cynicism rejects conventional social values, such as business hierarchies. The cynic is thus able to reflect on business practices from an external perspective and positively contribute by pointing out things that might not be visible to their superiors. Cynicism is not necessarily a focus on negativity; it allows a view of the organisation outside of office politics.
Every manager should prefer a cynic over the pseudo-expert that uses many buzzwords without substance or the critic who is quick to find fault with anything, without themselves performing but tend to deliver the goods. Cynics often exasperate upper management by always questioning everything. More often than not, however, they do know what is going on.2 Cynicism can help people ensure that others don’t take advantage of them, and potentially help organisations benefit from resistance to potentially dangerous decisions3. In one experiment, participants cynical toward the employing organisation were less likely to comply with unethical requests than those who were less cynical4.
Not all cynicism is, however, of equal value. Researchers have defined three types of cynicism: affective, cognitive and behavioural. In other words, you can be cynical as an emotional reaction, such as irritation, tension and anxiety. When you are cognitively cynical, you think that your organisation is run by self-interest and when you are behaviourally cynical, you display that attitude in how you perform at work.5 The most productive type of cynicism is the cognitive type—the cynic as the devil’s advocate.
My advice is to listen to cynics in your organisation. Find out what is bothering them and learn from these experiences.
Dean Jr, J.W., Brandes, P. & Dharwadkar, R. (1998). Organizational cynicism. Academy of Management Review (23) 341–52. ↩
Carlini, J. (1996). A trustworthy cynic. Network World, 13(42), 70–70. ↩
Naus, F., van Iterson, A. & Roe, R. Value incongruence, job autonomy, and organisation based self-esteem: A self-based perspective on organisational cynicism. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 2007b, 16, 195–219. ↩
Andersson, L.M. & Bateman, T.S. (1997). Cynicism in the workplace: Some causes and effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior 18, 449–469. ↩
Kim, Tae-Yeol, Bateman, Thomas S., Gilbreath Brad and Andserson, Lynne M. (2009). Top management credibility and employee cynicism: A comprehensive model. Human Relations 62(10), 1435–1458. DOI: 10.1177/0018726709340822. ↩