• David S Cohen

Earned Cynicism

When an organization launches a new initiative, employees are usually eager to go forward together to accomplish those aims. Of course, there are always cynics, reluctant traditionalists or destructive naysayers. But the vast majority of employees are generally ready to give the leaders the benefit of the doubt. Most people are willing to help move in the direction set out by their senior leaders.

The credibility of leaders is like an inherited trust. Under normal circumstances, that account has a high balance. Those who have a stake in the company, like shareholders, customers, and employees, prefer to see the values increase rather than go down. In fact, if takes a lot to deplete the account and put the perceived ‘value’ of the organization in dangerous standing.

However, when management breaks promises or fails to live up to the organization’s values, the drop-off in committed beliefs is often proportional to the disappointment. It’s as though credibility, the currency of leadership, has proved to be counterfeit. The result is something I’ve learned to call “earned cynicism”.

I first heard the term used in this context when I was facilitating a focus group to validate an organization’s value set. The group was composed of a number of middle managers – the key link between the leadership team and the front line. Most of the organization had been with the organization for 10 years or more, but there were two ‘newbies’ who’d recently been hired.

As one of the newly hired managers shared how the employees exhibited each value, sparks began to fly. One of the tenured managers seemed bewildered and was becoming increasingly emotional noting that the values all sounded good but in reality leadership (and in turn employees) seldom acted that way, especially under pressure. She continued, the group was talking about an ideal aspirational world, not the reality of the company. That was not how things get done around here.

In the real world, she added, internal politics would get in the way, or that the pressures from the board would cause sudden unnecessary and unexplained changes. Often, she noted, some of the leaders were the first not to stick to their guns, in turn giving permission to other employees to do the same. What was the point of brining up the values when making a decision or taking an action is dictated by circumstance, not the values?

I scanned the group and waited for a response. Finally, the other recently hired manager, still energetic about the company, said he thought the values were inspirational and one of the causes of him changing companies. He said that people should learn to live up to those values, instead of being cynical about them.

The long tenured manager, who had seen similar ‘values’ initiatives come and go, said; “Just wait and see. When you're here as long as I am, you will also feel the leadership will have earned your cynicism.”

When I relay this story in other organizations people smile because it resonates like a Dilbert cartoon, striking a familiar chord.

When people have been told that something is going to happen and that it’s going to create a new and better way, they get excited and become emotionally invested. When that doesn’t happen, or happens for only a short time, their cynicism grows.


Management fads come in with great fanfare and go when the shine wears off – with no lasting effect. For example: Declarations that people are the most important asset (having people in the values set) – followed by a reorganization (a euphemism for layoffs) or that the training budget is reduced and development is curtailed – are the seeds of cynicism. When managers who don’t have the courage to deal promptly with under-performers – or just as important – managers reward those who exceed their objectives, while acting counter to the stated culture, with high performance reviews and bonuses, people learn that the stated values are anything but real.

The ‘earned cynicism’ grows when rewards, recognition and especially promotions go to the favored instead of the worthy. Think about the impact on morale, on the spirit of bringing in new employees, on the enthusiasm of your current employees as ambassadors of your organization. Earned cynicism is a powerful and distributive force because it is the offspring of broken promises.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Creating a series of safeguards from the top down, manager by manager, can stop earned cynicism. In fact, that’s what leadership is all about.

My assumption starts with this premise: talented people leave even the best-run organizations when they are a poor fit to the lived values of the company (not the stated values). While I used to believe that people don't leave companies they leave managers I have come to realize they leave both when the fit between the employee’s and corporate values are not aligned. They just leave sooner when they are not aligned with the behaviors of their boss. As a result leaders hold in their hands the key to preventing or overcoming the destructive force of cynicism.

The source of the beginnings of creating alignment between words and actions is holding managers accountable, by senior leaders, for their behaviors. This has to start with the leader of the organization holding her or his team members accountable for their actions, even if they are ‘getting the numbers’!

Reality is we don’t often think in terms of a “fun place to work” being a place with the right values. If we think it is the right mix of values, then we join the company. Once we begin work we look to our manager for the definition of ‘successful behavior’, understanding it through how he or she treats people and what the manager does in a crisis. Yes, we do look to our managers, to do what they do so they will see themselves in us and review our performance favorably. In other words, our direct manager has the greatest influence on how we behave and how be believe in our organization’s stated values. We also see how our executive leaders act in difficult situations; looking to see if they do as they say or not. When the leaders violate what they espouse as a strongly held believe but acts counter, making the values situational, we become disgruntled and cynicism grows.

What can be done?

Discussions about how the belief system of the organization contributes to achieving real-world objectives are natural and healthy. The discussion helps people understand the real meaning of the values and shows that decisions are aligned with the values. It explains why some actions, which other companies might have taken, are not taken because of the values. This helps people grapple with the right way to accomplish their day-to-day work in ever-changing circumstances. These discussions should be based on real stories and begin in the early days of onboarding.

The best antidote to creating a fertile ground for cynicism is for leaders and employees, at all levels, but especially those who are in the “C” suite, to hold people accountable to living the values, regardless of how well they are doing in accomplishing the business objectives. Without holding them accountable with meaningful consequences there will be no change in behavior and each employee will be able to rationalize their actions, violate the values, and live another day. Causing more and more ‘earned cynicism’ because of inaction.

A healthy organization doesn’t shy away from the values debate or sweep the issues under the rug making things relative instead of absolute. Rather, it brings them to light, celebrates those who do the right things, and is consistent about dealing with those who don’t.

#Values #Culture


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