TAG Consulting

Cynicism Is A Good Thing

February 28, 2017

The most healthy organizations allow for a balance between trust and cynicism when it comes to the outlook of their members.



Cynicism gets a bad rap. We tend to picture the cynic as the cranky, world-weary know it all on the last barstool to the right, or the tiresome guy in the break room who can’t stop talking about how the system is rigged against the little guy,

We tend not to seek out cynics in our personal life. And if we are ever accused of cynicism ourselves we’ll likely quickly and defensively say “No – I’m not cynical, just realistic!”.

But here’s a reframe: trust and cynicism go together.

Trust is the glue that holds an organization together. Employees will invest more trust in an organization that trusts them.

Our research which led to TED – The Engagement Dashboard, our online employee engagement survey, found that the number one predictive factor for a high performing organization is the deeply held belief that “Management can be counted upon to come through when needed”. That’s trust.

Trust is the currency of leadership.

But there’s a place for healthy cynicism too.

Cynicism says that new hires are not as likely to immediately replace the performance and reliability of the people they replaced so they need watching, accountability and support. Cynicism spurs the creation of financial controls and risk management strategies because it realizes that people won’t always do the right thing.

Cynicism isn’t the absence of trust so much as it is a way of reducing complexity.

For example, you’re driving alone on a rain-slicked road at night. The car coming towards you appears to be veering into your lane, a head on collision imminent.

To fully trust you have to suspend all belief that anything could be wrong – that the driver could be impaired or texting or reckless. You simply continue on your way without making adjustments or allowances.

But a little balanced cynicism recognizes that something could be amiss, allows you to raise your awareness and alertness and prepares you to take evasive action if needed. Without over-thinking it.

Here’s the bottom line for your organization: You can’t do the things that build trust unless you’ve done the things that manage cynicism.

In other words, the accountability and controls which healthy cynicism encourages allow for trust to flourish.

What about your organization?

Are you characterized by a culture built on trust? Or is it one where there is suspicion and unhealthy cynicism?

Are the appropriate standards, agreements, protocols, and standards of accountability which manage cynicism in a way that leads to the freedom that comes from trust?



Balancing Trust And Cynicism

May 26, 2016


It takes time to build trust in an organization…but cynicism spreads like crabgrass!

Cynicism can be a destructive, corrosive force, stalking your office corridors and internal comms channels, completely altering the environment of your organization.

But, let’s face it – cynicism can’t be completely eliminated. As a matter of fact, when it is tamed and leveraged cynicism can play a positive role in the life of your organization.

How can you balance cynicism and trust in your organization?

When you are driving down the road and see a car approaching you in the opposite lane you have to make the decision to trust that it is going to remain in its late as opposed to crashing head-first into you. Hundreds of times each day, we make similar decisions to trust. There’s no other way to function in life. In a very real sense, trust is as necessary to our daily survival as food and water.

But, as counterintuitive as it sounds, we need cynicism as well.

Let’s say we are driving late at night in hazardous conditions. A car is approaching in the opposite lane, going too fast and weaving across the road. A healthy degree of cynicism would lead us to assume that the driver is intoxicated or otherwise incapacitated and to take defensive measures. In that case, I am right not to trust.

Same thing in our organizations. Trust is healthy – indeed it is the most important predictive factor in the success of an organization. But there is also such a thing as a healthy dose of cynicism.

You can’t do the things that build trust unless you’ve done the things that manage cynicism.

For instance, it is appropriate to be a little cynical when onboarding a new hire. They are not going to be as competent as a veteran in their first days on the job. They need to be supervised and mentored in the culture and processes of your organization, no matter how sparkling their resume and credentials.

This is healthy organizational cynicism. It’s not personal distrust. As a matter of fact, we put systems of accountability in place to remove the need for personal distrust.

People have strengths and weaknesses and we have to manage those as leaders. Healthy leaders aren’t shy about putting mechanisms in place to support both employees and the organization as a whole.

The art is in balancing trust and cynicism – distinguishing between cynicism that is healthy and that which is unhealthy.

Unhealthy cynicism never allows trust to grow. Healthy cynicism fosters a safe, controlled environment in which trust is the ultimate goal. Monitoring processes are in place but those processes are fair and flexible, not rigid and domineering. They create a climate of equity and ownership where employees can say “This is MY organization; I can trust and I feel trusted because I know our shared values and commitments will be honored by everyone”.

A trusted advisor taking a supportive, outside look at your organization can help you make sure that you are balancing trust and cynicism in your leadership. You can find out more here!