The Hopeful Cynic
“When you are cynical, you are never disappointed. It’s courageous to hope, because at some point, you will get your heart broken.”
I recently heard Carrie Newcomer make this statement as she was being interviewed by Krista Tippett for an episode of the thought-provoking “onbeing” podcast series.
Dear readers, these words have floated in and out of my consciousness for a couple of weeks now. As I slowly evaluate cynicism and the position it occupies in our lives, something about this idea continues to bring about a disquieting sense of uncertainty.
In this post, I would like for us to examine cynicism to understand how it affects our lives and shapes our worldview. Furthermore, I want to explore what is necessary to learn from the sentiment so that we can more freely access “hope.” I advocate this idea of hope as a pathway out of the quagmire of disappointment, thus moving us towards the attainment of professional and personal fulfillment.
Why does cynicism exist and where does it come from?
“Cynicism about change involves involves a real loss of faith in the leaders of change and is a response to a history of change attempts that are not entirely or clearly successful. It arises in spite of the best intentions of those responsible for change, even rational decision makers who care about the well-being of employees and value their reputations.” (Reichers, Wanous, Austin, 1997)
I believe cynicism to be a common, often subconscious feeling that arises from fear and uncertainty, subsequently manifesting as we attempt to protect ourselves from future disappointment. Additionally, it serves as as a means of rationalizing decisions and initiatives outside of our control. When we lack a sense of agency or the belief that we have the ability to achieve goals, we look to insulate ourselves and limit self-responsibility.
Are there benefits of cynicism?
The short answer to this question is unequivocally, YES.
Though social and emotional awareness are becoming common characteristics of leaders, sometimes leaders still view cynicism in subordinates as a negative emotion, with potential to create disharmony. When faced with cynical points of view, leaders often panic and view their employees as disruptive or negative. By taking this stance, these leaders may indirectly and sometimes intentionally isolate, devalue, and under-communicate to their teams. This only serves to further disenfranchise our most precious commodity.
Cynics should not be viewed as troublemakers. They should be seen as a barometer, offering insight into the pressures and shortcomings of the decisions and expectations given to them. Instead of panicking, leaders should express willingness to employ methods to best engage the cynics and the root causes of their feelings.
So where is the benefit you may wonder? Well, when cynicism appears in the workplace, it can lead to awareness that adjustment may be necessary. Although it may be uncomfortable, it is an important message to receive.
Just because we receive a cautious or cynical response from our teams, it does not necessarily reflect their lack of commitment to change. Though difficult to hear, your team may be communicating their weariness of repeating mistakes.
Don’t miss these opportunities Leaders. Meet your employees and teams where they are, energetically and emotionally. Engage, listen, and learn. You may be surprised with the insight offered you.
What are the challenges of cynicism?
When expressing cynical emotions, there is potential that a repeated narrative manifests as a self fulfilling prophecy. As we repeatedly state our thoughts, the more likely those ideas become entrenched beliefs which can be difficult to dislodge. When our beliefs are challenged, right or wrong, we often fight for and protect them at all costs.
Additionally, when cynicism is expressed on our teams, we may observe a lack of effort, decreased participation, poor follow through, declining personal responsibility, lessened productivity and efficiency, and distrust.
Again, these issues are concerning but should not generate panic. Use these experiences to grow and improve! It is our responsibility as leaders to engage during times of distress as much as it is during times of abundance and consistency.
Is there a remedy for cynicism?
YES! Plain and simple, HOPE is the answer.
Webster says that Hope is “to expect with confidence and to cherish a desire with anticipation”.
I’m a great big fan of good old Webster but he doesn’t always just clear things right up for me, if you know what I mean. To take a shot at the definition of hope, I would say it is a belief that we can change, obtain our goals, and have the capability to do so. Hopefully my definition did not further confound some of us that are still attempting to find our own meaning to this concept.
In my experience, hope is so often something that we save for our personal lives; something to be used sparingly, on special occasions.
I would advocate instead that hope is vibrant, alive, and when activated, it must be met with courage. Hope should should be a constant in our lives and utilized daily. Think of hope as an emotional sunscreen, protecting us from overexposure to cynicism. As a point of reference, the “hope” SPF is irrelevant. Simply continue with liberal use and reapply as needed.
- Open up a conversation and involve others in decisions making processes. Actively engage your teams and as I stated before, go to the places where discussions are had and where the work gets done. Don’t expect the conversations to knock on your door and show themselves in. I have designed and facilitated “creative solution workshops” where groups come to together to evaluate, support, and find solutions to real challenges that our employees experience. One of my favorite workshop tools is called SODAS. It is a social problem solving and decision making method which has been utilized in classrooms for years. This process supports the exploration of S = solutions, O = options, D = disadvantages, A = advantages, and S = solutions. Benefits of using this type of model are empowerment, improved communication, relationship building, a sense of agency, and creative positive outcomes. When facilitating strategic planning sessions, I still use this model. Other strategic planning models such as SMART, SWAT, MOST, etc. can generate similar results. Find what works best for your team.
- Use all channels of communication and keep people informed. Person-to-person exchanges are ideal but are not always practical, especially in meetings. If you are a leader that feels strongly about using meetings as a primary means of communication – great. Meetings can be excellent tools however, use them wisely. Create an environment where a thoughtful conversation can be had and please, don’t hit your team with surprises. For suggestions on facilitating effective meetings, look through this previous post, “bringing it to vote“.
- Use technology and consider adding text and email blasts to your existing methods of communication. Memos, posters, invites, and newsletters are time proven methods of communicating and there is no reason not to use them. Get creative and find out what works for your needs.
- Use credible and skillful spokespersons to champion your new initiatives and goals. Remember, transparency and logic are expectations of your employees; prepare your message accordingly.
- Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Build a small group of ground-level employees that you can count on to offer you their insights and thoughts. You will be amazed at what comes from a different perspective. This same group can also be utilized as future messengers, reaching additional pockets of team members. I feel so strongly about this practice that I assembled a group of diverse advisors for my business prior to taking on our first client. I value conversation and never want to leave unrecognized possibilities on the table.
- Eliminate surprises. At times, change comes quickly and must be addressed with a sense of urgency. Quite understandable but this should be the exception not the rule. Our brains have the capacity to process a tremendous amount of information however, it is a leadership imperative to create an environment where an employee can utilize all their cognitive resources. Create an environment where someone is operating with uncertainty or fear and automatically, without knowing, our sympathetic nervous system comes alive activating our flight, fight, or freeze responses. That is definitely not a space from which you want your team operating.
- Develop a robust training and workshop environment. Collaboration can be a powerful way to create pathways to creativity and innovation. I have facilitated workshops on relationships, engagement, mindset, meaning, communication, goals, and strengths. These types of workshops nurture the spirit of collaboration in a safe and comfortable environment. Reach out to me with further questions.
- Deal with the past! Reichers, Wanous, and Austin did a phenomenal job of detailing examples of what our employees are seeking from our communication to them. If historical results have been mixed and frustrations have gone unresolved, you need to deal with it. Accept responsibility and own mistakes that have been made. Do not deflect and stammer about the issues. If an apology is in order please, do so.
- Celebrating success. This is one of the single most important opportunities we have to eliminate cynicism and to combat the feeling that some employees may believe their efforts are in vain. To begin, establish tangible goals which are clearly articulated to your employees. Offer your team routine evidence of how their efforts are generating progress. This can come in a variety of ways, however, I encourage you to use a little creativity. Make progress updates fun and inspiring – not just another spreadsheet to review. After attaining your goal, celebrate the process utilized in getting there and recognize the results.
Exploring cynicism makes me uncomfortable, as it should. It not only challenges my individual point of view; it forces me to examine the way in which I lead. Although uncomfortable, I know that through thoughtful exploration we can all more readily access hope; vital to growth and development. When accessed, hope offers endless possibilities and can help us to grow toward positive results and flourishing relationships.
I believe that people want to do a great job. I believe they want to meet expectations, succeed, and be happy while doing it. I also recognize that I have been incredibly fortunate over the years. I have been empowered to create a working environment where employee happiness and engagement were valued as much as top and bottom line results. I was given autonomy in method and possessed the willingness to support employee happiness. I would advocate the same for your organizations. Value the opportunities to explore cynicism and the host of other challenges that you will encounter as a leader.
Be courageous, be hopeful, and lead on.
“Your truly, the hopeful cynic”