Peak Cynicism – are we there yet?

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Simon Bird

peak cynicism

Peak Cynicism – are we there yet?

Cynicism isn’t new – but it does feel quite pervasive in the organisations in which I’m working with teams and leaders.  If you’re feeling the pressure of leading in today’s intensely dynamic environment, you’re not alone. One of the most pressing challenges facing leaders currently is dealing with the rising tide of cynicism and negativity amidst relentless change – and it does feel different at the moment.

I only recently discovered cynicism to be a construct that’s actually researched so got lost for a while online. Is there anything that can be done – or do we all just have to suck it up and plough on regardless?

Barling, Dupré, and Hepburn (2020) suggest that it emerges from employee dissatisfaction or a sense of disillusionment, often triggered by a perceived mismatch between leadership actions and words.  This reminded me of a definition of trust, which was related to people doing what they say they’ll do. 

Simple, right?

What else does the research say that leaders can do?

Confronting the Elephant in the Room: Giving voice to concerns can go a long way in building trust. Menges & Kilduff (2020) demonstrate that acknowledging these concerns provides an opportunity for employees to feel heard, which in turn humanises leadership.

The Power of Transparent Communication: Men, Yue, and Liu’s 2020 study found a correlation between regular, transparent communication and decreased cynicism. Help your team to connect the dots – share the ‘why’ behind the changes.

Model the Change Attitude: Attitudes are contagious, and research by Lee, Farh, and Chen (2020) shows that a leader’s positive outlook can inspire similar attitudes in their team. Demonstrate resilience and a growth mindset to inspire your team.

Involve to Evolve: Deng, Wu, Chen, and Deng (2020) found that involving employees in decision-making can reduce cynicism and foster a sense of empowerment. Empowered employees are likely to feel a sense of ownership towards change.

Walk Your Talk: Li, Chen, and Chen (2020) assert that consistency in words and actions is fundamental in combating cynicism. Lead by example and maintain consistency in your actions.

Let’s be clear – I don’t think this is about stifling dissent or promoting artificial positivity, but about fostering a culture that encourages diverse perspectives and supports individuals during periods of difficulty.

Leadership can’t just be about initiating change; it’s about leading people through it. As leaders, we are pivotal in transforming cynicism into optimism, supporting people to be resilient and adaptive to change.

Role modelling, dialogue and doing what you say you’ll do – seem to be more important than others in the face of cynicism or perhaps – simple weariness.

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