There are so many articles and books written about culture – what it is, how to build one, why it is important – and countless other themes. The area that I will talk about today is one of the biggest threats to organizations – cynicism.
The cynics in an organization can quietly undermine management’s business plans, they can breed discontent that will drive engagement down and turnover up, and they can become the barriers to making any positive changes to the company.
Needless to say, the cynics need to be moved out of the organization. But making this change is not an easy thing to do because sometimes the reason cynicism exists is that management created it. Fixing this problem takes more than giving some “malcontents” an outplacement program.
Who are the organizational cynics? They are the employees who:
- Always have a sarcastic remark during management meetings (Oh great – another mission/vision presentation – why can’t they spend some time increasing our marketing budget).
- Usually say that something cannot be done because a) it was done before and failed, b) we are not competitive enough to make it work, or c) they do not believe in their employee's ability to make it work.
- Often will employ their favorite tool – sarcasm – to deliver their message. They believe that the only reason they cannot fly is that turkeys surround them.
We all know the organizational cynics. I know that I do because for a long time I was one.
I was the person who always had the witty observation on why management did not know what they were doing, why all of our competitors were smarter than we were, and why I (or we) could do a much better job than our current bosses. I saw myself as entitled, and I focused way too much on what the company should do for me rather than what I could do for the company.
The organizational cynic is an easy role to occupy when you are an employee. You can contribute enough to the organization to justify your employment, but you will not give enough of yourself to push the boundaries and to help create a great workplace.
There are legions of organizational cynics out there rolling their eyes during a management presentation and messaging snarky insights to their coworkers along the lines of “You will not believe this but … .”
My executive coaching advice to every organization leader is this:
- Organizational cynicism will cripple you. It is critical to find out where the root cause exists and remove it – even if this means that the problem is with management, not the employees.
- Both sides – management and employees – must earn respect and loyalty by their words and deeds.
- It is always easier to claim that things will be better if the other person changes rather than looking in the mirror and asking yourself what you need to do to improve.
- Blind loyalty is not the solution for getting rid of organizational cynicism.
- Your organization will be hindered, if not threatened, if organizational cynicism is allowed to grow unchecked.
There are many cases where the root cause of the problem is squarely with management. Consider these examples:
- Inflated executive compensation packages while the rest of the organization has to learn to be lean and mean.
- Leaders talking about integrity while they quietly settle sexual harassment claims to protect other senior leaders. Or worse, they take action to terminate the senior leader by giving them an outsized exit package.
- Bad behavior that is ignored or allowed to exist – routinely removing older workers, unequal pay, or countless other wrongs.
“Never push employees to the point where they no longer give a damn.” – Peter Drucker
Fixing organizational cynicism takes more than a well-crafted PowerPoint deck, a “listening tour” by senior management, or PR-related gestures. It will take some managerial sacrifice and greater transparency to make it better.
I hate to say it (actually, I don’t), but nothing breeds cynicism more than when people believe that they are being treated unfairly in the workplace. When the CEO receives a massive pay package (proudly announced in the local papers), and HR tells everyone that the max pay increase for the year will be 2.5% (and – by the way – your health care contribution has also gone up), you do not have to be a fortune teller to predict what type of climate you will create.
Management needs to be seen as leaders and not as an entitled class. The members need to be seen as willing to sacrifice when it is necessary for the benefit of the team. Simon Sinek captured it perfectly:
“If our leaders are to enjoy the trappings of their position in the hierarchy, then we expect them to offer us protection. The problem is, for many of the overpaid leaders, we know that they took the money and perks and didn’t offer protection to their people. In some cases, they even sacrificed their people to protect or boost their own interests. This is what so viscerally offends us. We only accuse them of greed and excess when we feel they have violated the very definition of what it means to be a leader.”
― Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together, and Others Don't
Transparency builds trust. It shows everyone in the organization what their role should be, how their contribution matters, and that their employer trusts them with the information that they are sharing with them.
Transparency can be scary. Need an example? I recently read a great article “I Know the Salaries of Thousands of Tech Employees” where the author, Jackie Luo, writes bravely writes about what her current compensation is and openly shares all of the information that she knows about compensation in the Silicon Valley.
Her article captures the thoughts of many in the workplace today:
Let’s change the power dynamic. Talk to your co-workers, your industry peers, and your friends about how much you get paid. Talk to the women and underrepresented minorities on your team. Don’t just talk about salary; talk about your total compensation, including equity and bonuses. Talk about the process, like how your pay has changed over the course of your career and what it was like to negotiate the end offer you got. Invite them to do the same.
A common perception is that companies have all the power in the job market because they have the jobs. But employees are the ones who provide the skills and experience companies need. Knowing how much you should get paid gives you some power in a system that often doesn’t favor you — and you should use it.
I am fortunate to be part of a team where my business partners, Maryanne Pina Frodsham and Joe Frodsham, believe in being transparent with everyone on the team. We share revenue, pricing, customer updates, and all other information to bring our entire team together. I will admit that it can be scary sometimes, but the result is a team that is engaged, knowledgeable, and invested in our success.
A lot that I have so far written is about how leadership needs to change to combat organizational cynicism, but employee attitudes also are a critical factor.
This is no surprise to anyone – employees can be selfish, dishonest, and incompetent, and have an entitlement mentality. No matter how much management does to promote a positive workplace, there will always be:
- Monday morning quarterbacks who second-guess everything.
- Malcontents who will try to directly or indirectly derail management initiatives.
- Hypocrites who believe that management should sacrifice but will not commit themselves to do everything they can to move the organization forward.
These cynics need to be tackled head-on and given the opportunity to mentally onboard or leave. Keeping them on the team will come at a great risk.
Getting back to my personal story, I learned about the damage that can be done by not tackling the organizational cynics when I took over as President of my previous company, The Frontier Group (we have since merged with CMP).
As the president, I saw that there significant business trends that would require The Frontier Group to pivot from its previously successful B2C business to a B2B model. The pivot was going to be disruptive to the organization, but it was necessary for long-term growth.
There was a small but very vocal group of longtime legacy employees who privately (and publicly) derided my announcement to the company about the pivot (rationale, timeline, program elements). They were change-resistant, obstinate, and corrosive in their language, and a constant drag to getting any of the needed changes completed.
I allowed the situation to exist far too long out of a) my insecurity, b) wanting to be a nice guy, and c) trying to win the cynics’ hearts and minds. In the end, it was not enough, and the cynics should have been given their exit papers sooner.
My personal story shows that organizational cynicism is created and nurtured by both management and employees.
Positive change – a change that will get everyone aligned and working towards common goals to positively move the organization forward – begins and ends with all individuals honestly committing to give their best effort.
Whether it is a CEO who is showing empathy or the product manager doing their best to support the latest change in the company’s performance management system, cynicism can be conquered.