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Cynical Employees - 18 May 2016

Cynicism in the workplace consists of three main components.  First, cynical employees generally think negatively about the organisation (“That’s typical of this place.”)  Second, they react negatively to events that impact them (“I can’t believe this is happening to me.”).  Third, they act out their negativity.  (“I don’t care, I’m not following that process.”)

Until now, there hasn’t been much research conducted on workplace cynicism, but two studies just published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology provide interesting insights:

  1. Some employees are predisposed to being cynical.
  2. There’s something you can do about it.
In the first study, the researchers discovered that people who have a low self-evaluation are more likely to engage in cynicism because they perceive themselves as lacking competence, confidence and control.  The absence of those factors compels them into a cynical state of mind because each event at work reaffirms how they view their life: i.e. negatively.

In the second study, the researchers discovered that supervisor support is a primary way through which the consequences of cynicism can be alleviated.  Since many employees are cynical because they question their own self worth, having a supportive supervisor can lift their esteem such that even their job satisfaction increases.

The lesson for you as a leader is to know that, if you have a cynical employee, you might not need to focus your energies on stopping their negativity.  Focus instead on lifting their self-evaluation; how they see themselves.  You can do this in a number of ways:
  • Be on the lookout for signs that an employee has limited self-worth.  These can include low productivity, excessive bragging, and defensiveness.
  • Use affirming language that builds their sense of potential and capability.  They might be perfectly capable but they won't believe it unless you do.
  • Be an exemplar of ethics and fairness.  Having a supervisor whose behaviour contradicts the negative perception of the organisation can give them hope.
  • Set strict boundaries and standards about the type of behaviour you expect.  Self-esteem issues shouldn’t excuse a toxic influence in the workplace.
And if you’re in a position much higher in the hierarchy, consider that some decisions are best communicated by supervisors than by executives.  Sometimes cynicism can be kept at bay when announcements are made by those who are most trusted.


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