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Cynics: The Cancer in Your Team

January 28, 2016  Min to Reads

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Have you ever encountered a person who seemed incapable of accepting a kind act as simply that, a kind act? Have you ever worked with a person who, no matter what you did, saw selfish motivation in all of it? In the classic movie, White Christmas, Bob Wallace is commenting to Betty Haynes on her sister’s plot to get Wallace and Davis to come see their sister-act. Judy, Betty’s sister, had sent a forged letter from her brother to Bob and Phil. Their brother, “Freckle-Faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy” was in the war with Bob and Phil, so Judy believed the bond between men who served together would stand a better chance of convincing Bob and Phil to come see them perform.

Bob’s comment to Betty was that even Judy had an angle, in fact everybody has a little larceny working in them. Betty was offended, and most of us would be too. In this case Bob was right about Judy. She did have an angle, in fact the whole movie plays off multiple plots and angles to get people to do things they might not do on their own volition. But Bod’s comment springs from cynicism, and cynicism is deadly for a team. It can also be extremely damaging to your career.

Dictionary.com defines cynic as “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.” If you want a team or an organization where everyone works as an independent and naturally distrusts everyone else, then hire a bunch of these people. But you should have already noticed that by definition you won’t have a team and your organization won’t be organized. I don’t have to tell you how detrimental that will be for your company or work-group. Let’s think about it. How does cynicism destroy team and limit collaboration.

  • First, it creates an environment of distrust and second guessing.
  • Second, it discourages selflessness and service

I believe that successful teams and work-groups are built on a high degree of trust and depend massively upon the willingness of individuals to do things for each other that are selfless and kind. Cynics inhibit this kind of work culture. When others do kind things for them, they respond with disbelief and may even grow angry and resentful because they believe they are being manipulated and somehow used for the other person’s gain. Eventually, the kind and giving members of your team stop being kind and giving. They retreat into self-preservation mode, protecting themselves from the rejection and bitterness of the cynic, and there you have it – the death of collaboration – the death of progress – the death of joy in the work place – the death of your organization.

Most managers and leaders will not let this cancer grow in their organization. They will move, sometimes too slowly, but they will move to eradicate it. They have a few techniques at their disposal for doing so.

  • They can and should start with coaching. They must try to help the cynic see why their point of view is inaccurate and how it is negatively impacting their ability to succeed in the work-place.
  • They can and must model a collaborative and trusting frame of mind. They must articulate with their words and actions, that they believe people are good and generally motivated by the good of the group. This includes they way that treat the cynic himself. It is so easy to distrust a cynic. After all, if they distrust the motives of everyone around them, how trustworthy are their motives. Leaders must trust their cynics and must believe that they can change.
  • They can and may be forced to find a new home for the cynic – somewhere else in the company, or outside the company. I’m not a fool, I understand that even though a cynic can change, that is no guarantee that she will. If after much patient coaching and consistent modeling of the desired behavior, the cynic remains a cynic and thereby continues to damage the work-group, the cynic must go.

Incidentally, that’s why being a cynic is bad for your career. If you are chronically cynical, people will avoid you, they will balk at being put on projects with you, and they will even lobby for your “relocation.” And even if your co-workers tolerate your cynicism, your leader won’t. He knows that your cynicism is hurting his ability to advance the company’s initiatives, and he will seek to change you or move you…sometimes right out of your job!

So, if you believe that everybody has an angle, that we are all out for ourselves first, then I suggest some real soul searching and some real realignment of your worldview. If you have someone like this on your team or in your organization…don’t tolerate it. Help them change or help them move!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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  1. This is an important warning. I heard Tom Rath say recently that scientists have discovered that you need 80% of your interactions to be more positive than negative; just to stay above water with your attitude. Cynics can be a huge counterforce to that. Perhaps they have that ratio backwards! 🙂

  2. Mark, I agree. It means we really do need to be selective about who we spend the majority of our time with. More positive people for me!

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