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 stems 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 reflects on business practices from an external perspective and positively contributes by pointing out issues that might not be visible to their superiors. Being cynical is not necessarily a focus on negativity; it allows a view of the organisation outside of office politics.
The value of being cynical
Every manager should prefer a cynic over the pseudo-expert armed with uses buzzwords without substance. Cynics often exasperate upper management by questioning everything. More often than not, however, they know what is going on.2
Cynicism helps people to ensure that others don’t take advantage of them and it benefits organisations through resistance to potentially dangerous decisions3. In one experiment, participants that were cynical towards their organisation were less likely to comply with unethical requests than those who were less cynical4.
Types of cynicism
Not all cynical behaviour is, however, of equal value. Researchers have defined three types of cynics: 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 self-interest runs your organisation. 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.
The lucid manager listens to cynics in your organisation to 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. ↩