“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.” ― Stephen Colbert
On almost every executive team I have worked with over the past 35 years there seems to be at least one cynic. We all recognise the cynic: the person who is not only a pessimist about new ideas, but also has the ability to discount other people’s success and good fortune. There are many definitions of cynicism:
1. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.
2. A person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative.
Most of us don’t enjoy being around the cynic for very long and they definitely aren’t motivating. I’ve never found cynicism on the list of the behaviours that define leadership. There are numerous popular books on leadership, such as Leadership Lessons from Genghis Khan, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Leadership Lessons from the Navy Seals, Leadership Lessons from the Godfather, and so on. But I’ve never seen: Leadership Lessons from Cynics!
So, I have a question. How do cynics get into senior management in the first place, and why are they often tolerated by others on the team?
Mostly I have to fault poor leadership at the top and a weak corporate culture for allowing cynics to rise up into senior management.
Let’s start with those who promote the cynic in the first place. One of the reasons the cynic gets promoted is because most managers believe that technical skills or business acumen are the most important criteria for promotion. Behavioural traits seem to be way down the list. Yet it is often the behaviour of the cynic that does more damage than can be compensated for by their technical or business skills. For example, they are often the worst at developing young talent, either technical or managerial. Their disdain for the success of others puts them in the category of the critic (at best) rather than a developer of people. They are also poor team builders, believing that good work is all that matters and all that motivational “kumbayah” stuff is self-serving rubbish.
And then there is the belief, erroneous in my view, that the cynic is much like the “devil’s advocate” and their presence is necessary to help overcome group think and to bring in different points of view. A big difference between the devils advocate and the cynic is that the former brings up alternative ideas and other points of view that actually help expand the thinking about the problem or situation. The cynic, on the other hand, offers no advice or useable ideas, instead being “content with contempt”!
Another major culprit in why cynics are allowed into senior management ranks is corporate culture. Many cultures are weak and lack clear and meaningful values to help guide behaviour. Such weak cultures tolerate cynics because no one has the courage or the mandate to confront them and their negative behaviour. Too often cultures have informal rules, such as: “don’t critique others, they might start in on you”, “it’s not my place to coach my peers”, “those who point out bad behaviour aren’t part of the team but just trying to get ahead”. Cultures that allow bad behaviours to go unchecked rarely deliver high performance. When you find a sick or weak culture in a company posting excellent results, you can bet it’s more about a favourable economy than great management.
For those CEOs with the insight and courage to confront and ultimately remove the cynics from the organisation, a clear signal is sent far and wide that negative and cynical behaviour will not be tolerated. Professionalism, yes; cynicism, no!
And what about the cynic themselves? What is behind this destructive behaviour? The following quote seems to ring true for me in my dealings with teams and cynics.
Remember, inside every cynic there lies a romantic, and probably an injured one. ~Glenn Beck
Tight Lines . . .
John R Childress