The Importance of Cynicism: The Organisation’s Guard Dog

The value of cynicism: The cynic is the guard dog of management.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.

  1. Dean Jr, J.W., Brandes, P. & Dharwadkar, R. (1998). Organizational cynicism. Academy of Management Review (23) 341–52. 

  2. Carlini, J. (1996). A trustworthy cynic. Network World, 13(42), 70–70. 

  3. 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. 

  4. Andersson, L.M. & Bateman, T.S. (1997). Cynicism in the workplace: Some causes and effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior 18, 449–469. 

  5. 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

People don’t care much about tap water

Women in Ethiopia carrying water. No acess to tap water

Women in Ethiopia carry water from a lake back to their homes. Source:

Access to clean tap water is considered a human right as without it life would be impossible. But although water falls free from the sky, getting the water you need is not for free. In countries without reticulated water, people sometimes spend hours each day obtaining their water. In more developed countries obtaining water has been outsourced and people pay water utility companies to deliver clean water right at their doorstep. Given the importance of water for sustaining life you might think that most people care very much about tap water.

Consumer Involvement

In marketing, consumer involvement is the construct used to measure how much consumers care about a product or service.1 It is measured by asking people to tick a box on a scale between two extremes.

Personal Involvement Inventory (Zaichowsky 1994).

Personal Involvement Inventory (Zaichowsky 1994).

In June last year I created an online survey to measure the Personal Involvement Inventory (PII) for tap water and invited people to complete it via Twitter.2

Consumer Involvement in Tap Water

In total 77 responses were received (40% female, 60% male). Respondents were also asked whether they have a garden and whether they are professionally involved in tap water. The lowest possible PII score is 10 and the highest 50. The average score of this survey was 40.6, which is quite high—more than previously reported for mouthwash, but less then the involvement people have with cars.3 Interestingly, there were no significant differences based on gender, having a garden or being a water professional—all groups valued water equally.

The Personal Involvement Inventory has two dimensions: it measures a cognitive (rational) and an affective (emotional) involvement. The average cognitive involvement with tap water was 23.6—almost the maximum score of 25. This is not surprising given the importance of water. Affective involvement with water was much lower at 17.2. The difference between the two is statistically significant: t(76)=13.42, p < 10-6. However, also in the sub-factors there is no significant difference between genders, gardening or profession.

Twitter is, however, not a representative sample and most tweets seem to originate from the younger generations. The research  can also not be considered a representative sample as the invitation to complete the survey was re-tweeted mainly by water related accounts. It can be assumed the people that follow these accounts have a higher level of involvement than regular tap water users. There is, however, no reason to assume that the relative difference between cognitive and affective involvement will be different in other population segments.


What we can tentatively conclude from these results is that our emotional relationship with water is much lower than our rational understanding of its importance.

These results can have implications for how tap water is marketed by water utilities. Involvement is an important indicator that is related to willingness to pay. The more we are involved with a product or service, the more we are willing to pay.4 Smart marketers thus use strategies to increase the level of involvement.

The reasons for the low level of involvement have to be sought in the marketing myopia of tap water service providers. Some have even argued that tap water managers are lazy marketers.To increase the level of involvement the message from water utilities needs to become more emotive, following the example of bottled water companies.

  1. Zaichkowsky, J. L. (1994). The personal involvement inventory: Reduction, revision, and application to advertising. Journal of Advertising, 23(4), 59. 

  2. Thanks to@DrinkTapDotOrg, @Help4SmallWater, @MagicTony and @cfishman for the help in getting respondents. 

  3. Zaichkowsky, J. L. (1985). Measuring the involvement construct. Journal of Consumer Research, 12(3), 341–352. 

  4. Cohen, M. (2000). Consumer involvement–driving up the cost. Consumer Policy Review, 10(4), 122–125 

Bottled Water Marketing — The Importance of Origin

Fiji water does not suffer from marketing myopia - bottled water marketingTwo pieces of interesting information regarding bottled water marketing have surfaced on the internet recently. Nestle has been sued for falsely advertising the origin of bottled water, and researchers published a finding that tap water is inherently safer than bottled water.

Nestlé is in trouble because its “spring water” source is municipal tap water. Nestlé’s advertising campaign claims the contents of Ice Mountain Water to be spring water, while it is distinctly referred to as “drinking water”, which is defined as “municipal water and well water…” in their documents.1 The water is further processed by Nestlé’s treatment plants and branded with images of pristine glacial lakes and mountains.

Bottled Water Marketing Strategy

This strategy is standard for bottled water companies. Given that tap water is identical to tap water, at 1000 times the price, bottled water companies need to increase the value proposition of their offering by emphasising how their product is different to tap water. A common strategy used by bottled water companies is to highlight origin and link the origin to increased benefits, such as health. Just look at Fiji Water, Evian and any other bottled water brand.

Many water utilities don’t do origin strategies very well, focusing on treatment processes instead of the natural origin of their service. Origin is of prime importance in water marketing, being it tap water or bottled water. Problems with the acceptance of recycled sewage as drinking water forcefully illustrate this point.

  1. The link to the document on the Tap It Talk website is longer active. 

The 7 Graces of Tap Water Marketing

Applying the 7 Graces to tap water marketing

Used with permission.

Marketing is often seen as the evil stepmother of business. Marketers are portrayed as malicious manipulators, driving consumerism and everything else considered wrong about contemporary culture. The debate about bottled water versus tap water being an interesting case in point.

Best-selling spirituality author Lynn Serafinn wrote a book about ethical marketing called: The 7 Graces of Marketing. Serafinn’s book provides a set of “values and principles for a new paradigm for business”. The book borrows from the principles of Value Based Management, which I have recently critically reviewed. Leaving the philosophical debate besides, I looked at how these seven principles could apply to the marketing of tap water.

Tap Water Marketing

Many professionals in the water industry consider tap water marketing unnecessary as most service providers are natural monopolies owned by governments. But marketing entails more than the recruitment and retention of customers. Marketing is about maximising value for customers and the principles defined in the 7 Graces can be used to provide a framework for the marketing of monopolistic services.

1. Connection

The first of the 7 Graces relates to knowing yourself to better communicate. In marketing speak, this is the so-called ‘value proposition’. This statement is not an empty catchphrase, but an essential aspect of customer relationships. A value proposition is the entire set of experiences that an organisation provides to customers. The value proposition is where the service provider and customer connect with each other.

2. Inspiration

The aim of advertising is to convince consumers to become your customers. In a monopolistic environment, there is no need for obtaining customers and advertising can be used to inform and inspire customers. Providing water is a service which people use to meet certain needs, being it drinking water for life, a swimming pool for social belonging or a garden to be able to express your creativity. Water companies can increase the value of service by providing information about how to use water in the best possible way and inspire people to maximise the value of the water they purchase.

3. Invitation

Most customers of water utilities are not interested in tap water as such; they just want the water without hassle. The ideal water corporation, i.e. the Invisible Water Utility, focuses on providing excellent service without being intrusive to its customers. But for those that seek further information we should provide all the information they need about our services.

4. Directness

Governments own most tap water companies. Their existence and actions are enshrined in law. This situation can lead to bureaucratic communication instead of real customer service. Directness implies placing the needs of the customer first instead of being locked into bureaucratic processes. Directness can be achieved by communicating with your customers in plain English and placing meeting their personal needs before using regulations to justify not helping them.

5. Transparency

Deception is a part of the human condition and often deliberately used in marketing. Marketing is just like performing magic tricks, using technique, psychology, misdirection and entertainment to sell goods and services. In a monopolistic environment, there is no need to deceive the customer; there is no need to resort to deception as customers do not need to be recruited nor can they defect.

6. Abundance

Water being a natural resource that can only be produced from its chemical components at enormous cost, environmental sustainability is of immense importance. Many water companies propagate a negative message of scarcity instead of abundance, which creates frustration in communities.1 This issue relates back to my comments on inspiration. Although there technically is a scarcity of water, we need to focus on a positive message on how to maximise the value of available water through education of customers and pricing signals.

7. Collaboration

One of the defining aspects of services is that they are provided in cooperation between customer and service provider. In the case of water, the service is provided through the taps and plumbing owned by the customers. Both service provider and customer need to work together to ensure a high level of service.

The Eight Grace and beyond?

Lynn Serfafinn’s 7 Graces provide a systematic framework to help marketers make ethical choices. But are these the only values? Any value based system will never be complete. Additional dichotomies, for example, injustice—justice (treating all customers equally) or apathyempathy (understanding customers), can be easily defined and justified. But it is up to the individual organisation which values it wants to focus on.

The 7 Graces is an inspiring book, written from a common sense perspective on how to provide value to customers without falling into the traps of the types of marketing used in consumer goods.

  1. Cooper, B., Burton, M., & Crase, L. (2011). Urban water restrictions: attitudes and avoidance. Water Resources Research, 47(12). doi:10.1029/2010WR010226 

The Value of Value Based Management

Value based management as a means to control behaviourMany organisations espouse to implement value-based management. There are several definitions of what value-based management is, but most are not very illuminating. The consensus is that value based management is a tool to achieve organisational consistency, or from a more cynical perspective, values are a device to control behaviour.

Philosophers refer to words such as value an ‘essentially contested concept’, which means that there is no agreement on the definition of value, which has espoused a complex branch of philosophy called axiology.

In practice, value based management leads to a list of abstract nouns that the organisation advocates. But, which of the many hundreds of positively interpreted abstract nouns in the English language do you choose? Which value is more important to your organisation? Do you prefer creativity over punctuality? Or should we have pride in our work or is it dedication we are after? Any word that has positive connotations and ends in -tion, -ism, -ity, -ment, -acy and so on will do. Defining a list of value, which usually is no longer than four, is restrictive and leads to the implicit exclusion of other positive values.

Value-based management is essentially a crude implementation of virtue-based ethics. This approach leads to tensions because most organisations don’t work according to virtues but follow a consequentialist approach; valuing those behaviours that lead to positive outcomes.1

value based management is of little value

In value based management it is assumed that following an arbitrary list of abstract nouns will lead to good business outcomes. These lists of abstract nouns are a cheat-sheet for employees for how to behave and a way for management or colleagues to assess the behaviour of others. The values chosen from the multitude of available abstract nouns are usually decided democratically, without systematic examination of all available options.2

Most businesses are not honest in their chosen values, Enron being an excellent case in point. The never list greed any of the other deadly sins as their real core values. And those so-called deadly sins are not always wrong. Peter Nowak argued convincingly that the seven deadly sins have propelled humanity more for good than bad.

Value-based management is of little value as it ignores the practical outcomes of behaviours. It is also flawed because it arbitrarily highlights some values of others. Surely to be ethical, we should behave in accordance positive values and not just those printed on our coffee mugs.

  1. Consequentialism can be problematic because not all action that leads to the right results can be considered ethical. I have argued in an earlier paper that deontic constraints are required to maintain the goal-oriented nature of business in an ethical environment. 

  2. I prefer to stick to the list defined by Aristotle, more than 2000 years ago: wisdom; prudence; justice; fortitude; courage; liberality; magnificence; magnanimity and temperance. 

Five points of public speaking — What managers can learn from magicians

Five points of public speaking — What managers can learn from magiciansPublic speaking fills many people with fear. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that:

“… people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This strong statement means to the average person that if you have to go to a funeral, you are better off in the casket than doing the eulogy”.

For professionals, public speaking is an essential skill which unfortunately not many of them excel at. We all have sat through death by Powerpoint; bombarded with slides and poorly presented disjointed information.

In my opinion, presentation skills are essential to succeed in any organisation—business presentations are a form of theatre. In this post, I will explain how a book popular among magicians—The Five Points of Magic Spanish performer Juan Tamariz—can be used to teach professionals about presentation skills.1 Below are some tips from the book that apply to both magicians and public speaking.

The Five Points of Public Speaking

1. The Eyes

Eye contact is the most important tool to connect with the audience. Don’t only look at the first row. Sweep your gaze like a fan across the spectators, giving everybody some personal attention.

Public speaking - eye contact

2. The Hands

The hands are the most important tool of the magician, and in business presentations, they usually perceived get in the way. But the hands can communicate almost anything. We should use our hands to point out things, present objects and emphasise the communication. Think about how you use your hands other than a means to hold your laser pointer.

3. The Voice

Imagine an elderly lady, who is hard of hearing, sitting at the back of the room. Dedicate the performance to her and project your voice to the last row.

Public speaking - project your voice

4. The Feet

The best place to stand is centre stage, facing the audience. Don’t hide behind the lectern or turn your back to the audience. This positioning is essential to be able to make good eye contact.

5. The Body

Body language is our subconscious means of communication. In theatre, and thus also in public speaking, we need to be aware of this type of communication.

In Conclusion

This post is only a glimpse into the wide array of literature on theatrical performances that can be applied to public speaking. Business people that perform magic have been found to be better public speakers.2 Next time you need to do a presentation, view it as a theatrical performance and follow the five points of public speaking.

One last tip: whatever you do, never imagine your audience naked, at best it will get you distracted.

If you like to know more about magic tricks, read my book Perspectives on Magic.

  1. Russian magician Manual Llaser uses the Five Points principle in corporate training. 

  2. Davids, Meryl. “Tricks of the Trade.” The Journal of Business Strategy 15, no. 3 (1994): 67. 

Organisations do not exist—a Buddhist perspective

One of Cyndi's slides

One of Cyndi’s slides.

Yesterday Cyndi Laurin presented at the World Business Capability Conference about The Four Pillars of Organizational Greatness. One analogy presented by Cyndi used stuck in my mind as it took me back to my days as a philosophy student.

Cyndi asked which part of a car is the most essential. The audience mentioned several options, and then it dawned on me that this analogy is much like a famous line of reasoning in Buddhist philosophy about the self, which I will use to show that there is no such thing as an organisation.

the idea of the firm

The Buddhist view of the firm would be that there is no such entity, illustrated by a debate between King Milinda and the Buddhist monk Nagasena.1 Following the analogy used by the monk, we can compare a firm with a chariot, or in more modern terms a car. None of the individual parts of the car (the wheels, the engine, the radio and so on), are the car. Nor can you say that the combination of the parts is the car. We can not discover a firm at all, only the word that denotes the idea of the business. A business consists of its parts, just like a car does. None of the parts of the firm, however, are the firm. No part is less important than the other—although followers of the Lean philosophy will disagree on this one.

The Buddhist argument extends to management in that a firm is not about its constitute parts, but a firm is a cycle of cause and effect, or in Buddhist terms, Karma. A firm is not about its CEO, the share price, employees, customers or fancy headquarters. A company, just like a person, is defined by the actions it takes and their results.

Following the Buddhist view to its conclusion, there is only one pillar of organisational greatness: the actions taken by the organisation.

  1. Edward Conze, Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959), pp. 147–149. 

Reinventing the wheel?—Repetitiveness in business theory

aha-erlebnis - is business theory about reinventing the wheel?I am presenting my work at the World Business Conference in Auckland. One of the things that struck me listening to fellow presenters is the repetitive nature of the presentations. Not that they are bad presentations, but it seems that research is repeating itself. When a presenter throws up the next slide with profound truths many people think “duh, common sense”, others have an ‘aha-erlebnis‘—a moment of sudden insight, and the rest of the audience does not notice as they gently fall asleep due to Powerpoint overload.

Is business theory busy reinventing the wheel or is something else going on?

Some business theories are based on rigorous research while others are intuitive and akin to pop-psychology. What all business theories have in common is that they aim to influence behaviour. Management is about changing or controlling the conduct of employees; marketing seeks to modify the behaviour of customers and strategy is about the conduct of stakeholders and the competition.

Most business theories are unintentionally based on the idea that people are rational. But contemporary economics and marketing have found that our rationality is limited. Our brains stop us from following the normative theories in business. Being in business is a constant struggle between the rational part of our brains and its natural tendencies. Plato described humans as a chariot pulled in different directions by two horses: reason and the emotions. Going to business conferences and hearing the same stories over and over again might be a way to give the horse of reason more power.

Maybe it is not about reinventing the wheel, but perhaps management theory is about keeping the wheel turning. We need to be constantly reminded of the obvious through variations on the theme.

The harder question is to ask whether we need to keep this wheel turning and maybe we should give some more credence to the non-rational dimension in management.

Are SMART objectives smart?

SMART Objectives are a filter through which we see the reality of managementSMART objectives are a seemingly immutable law in management, originally formulated by George Doran in 1981.1 We are told in management seminars that objectives should be, in the words of Doran, Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-related.  Many varieties have spawned from the minds of managers across geography and time, each focusing on slightly different aspects of the meme. There is no science behind this, as is the case with most popular management memes. The original meme has evolved through successive mutations.

Are SMART Objectives smart?

“What you measure is what you get…”

The term Specific can also be written as: ‘stretching’ or ‘simple’; measurable has mutated into ‘meaningful’, ‘motivational’ and ‘manageable’, Assignable is in most cases turned into ‘achievable’, which is the same as being realistic. Realistic in turn has morphed into ‘relevant’ or ‘resource-based’ and lastly ‘time-related’ has stood the test of time and has not changed much in the various mutations of the original definition. Some have even extended the mnemonic and defined SMARTER objectives.

Many managers seem to struggle with defining SMART objectives, evidenced by the multitude of websites and magazine articles devoted to this topic. The meme—I dare not call it a theory as there is no real research into the effectiveness of this popular business tool—is driven by the idea that we can only manage what we can measure. This approach is driven by the often cited words of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch: “What you measure is what you get…”.

I propose that organisations start using DUMB targets:2

  • Devious
  • Unfair
  • Manipulative
  • Bizarre

Any list of adjectives that can remotely be related to management will do. Just Google “adjectives starting with …” and create your acronym. If you find a good one, please add it to the comments box.

Are SMART Objectives smart?

“Too often we measure everything and understand nothing”

Not everything activity in an organisation is measurable and using SMART targets often obfuscates the fact that business is about human interaction and can not always be placed into a quantitative straight-jacket. How can you specify a SMART target for having empathy for customers? How do you define a measurable objective for having a genuine smile? There is an inherent incompleteness in relying on quantitative measures when managing an organisation that deals with people and people are the very cornerstone of every organisation. It is undeniable that measurement is essential in business. Although quantitative performance measurement is a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient condition for holistic performance measurement. To understand their business, managers must take the responsibility of venturing beyond the figures and dashboard displays.

  1. Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write managements’ goals and objectives. Management Review, 70(11), 35–36. 

  2. Others before me have also defined DUMB Targets: See Evan Carmichael, DUMB Goals

Marketing Myopia in Tap Water Services



A few weeks ago I ran a workshop for a group of senior managers of a tap water supplier. The workshop consisted of a series of rhetorical questions designed to spawn discussion about the meaning of customer service in tap water.

When asking the question: “What service do you provide?” the answers were mainly based on the physical aspects: physically providing water to customers.

The water managers were wrong! A tap water company is, paradoxically, not about selling tap water.

Marketing Myopia

Managers of water utilities who believe that they merely sell water suffer from so-called ‘marketing myopia’, a term coined in 1960 by Theodore Levitt.1 This is a situation where an organisation focuses on selling products or services instead of focusing on satisfying customer needs.

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between needs and wants. In marketing the common sense definition—needs are obligatory and wants are discriminatory—does not apply.2 Needs are a state of felt deprivation which is either physical, social or psychological. Looking at water as a service, we need some water to physically survive and for hygiene. Al significant amount of the water we use for hygiene is, however, driven by sociological needs because of western values towards cleanliness. People also need water for their gardens because it gives them a sense of accomplishment. People need water for their swimming pool, because it provides them an outlet for social belonging. Nobody buys water just for the pleasure of owning it, water has a purpose.

One of the main rules in consumer behaviour is that we do not buy products for what they do, but for what they mean.3 So as marketers we do not judge the consumer’s needs or wants. Consumers need water for social and psychological reasons, as much as they need it for physiological reasons.

Avoiding marketing myopia

Good marketing is about satisfying the needs of the customers, which means you need to understand them. In the context of water it is important to understand what your customers do with the water. Looking at websites of water utilities shows a large focus on the technology to deliver the product. There seems to be a need to tell consumers how much effort is required to give them their daily tap water instead of showing the benefits of using the water.

Fiji water does not suffer from marketing myopia


Bottled water companies have a different view on this issue. Their communication material never shows the production process, they show the origin of the water or the benefits it provides. This ad from Fiji water emphasises the purity of the water by using the word ‘untouched’. Bottled water companies connect their product not with technology, but with nature and beautiful healthy people.

We need a paradigm shift in the way tap water is marketed by utilities. Not because customers might defect to the competition, but to create goodwill. Many water companies try to do this by rationally explaining how hard it is to create drinking water. Well, I am sorry to say that your customers don’t care about water as much as you do.

A much more effective way is to tap into the emotions of your customers and link your product to the benefits it provides them, or the pristine origins of the water. A water utility is not about selling water, it is about promoting health, providing water to have fun, grow your own vegetables or relax in a bubble bath.


  1. Levitt, T. (1960). Marketing Myopia. Harvard Business Review, 38(May/June), 45–56. 

  2. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. 

  3. Belk, R. W. (1988). Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer Research, 15(2), 139–168.