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August 31, 2022

How to cure cynicism at the office

Daily Briefing

    Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Jamil Zaki, a psychology professor at Stanford University, explains how your company may reinforce cynicism among employees—and how to reverse it.

    Our take: 3 strategies to build baseline emotional support for your staff

    What drives cynicism?

    'Cheater detection'

    From a young age, we are equipped with what some scientists call "cheater detection," which helps us distinguish between good and bad actors. However, this can also lead to "positive-negative asymmetry," causing us to assume the worst in others.

    "In other words, we imagine a version of others that is much worse than the flesh-and-blood folks actually out there," Zaki writes. "And when we interact with that version rather than with their true selves, our responses can cause harm and spread cynicism further."

    Offensive strikes

    According to Zaki, "[c]ynics often act as though the best defense is a good offense."

    Typically, cynical individuals are less willing to help others and more likely to assume the worst in others and mirror the expected behavior. For instance, one study led by Malia Mason at Columbia University found that people who think others are dishonest are more likely to negotiate dishonestly.

    "People reciprocate kindness and retaliate against cruelty, meaning that cynics' actions bring out the worst in others," Zaki writes.

    Blind mistrust

    People who identify as cynics often believe that their cynicism is "hard-earned wisdom," and believe that anyone with a different outlook is naïve, Zaki writes.

    "Although they may accuse others of blindly trusting, it seems that cynics themselves blindly mistrust," he adds. "By viewing everyone through the same dark lens, they fail to notice cues that distinguish cooperators from cheaters. Yet as long as people continue believing that cynicism is smart, cynics will be rewarded."

    How an organization's practices can breed cynicism

    Ultimately, human psychology is not the only driver of employees' mistrust. "It's quite possible that your company's policies and practices are based on and reinforce cynicism as well," Zaki writes.

    Two of the most common practices that encourage cynicism include:

    'Zero-sum leadership'

    A strategy known as "stack ranking" rewards top performers while issuing warnings or terminations to those who fall behind. While the strategy is designed to foster "natural" competitiveness, it also leads employees to view their workplace as a zero-sum game.

    In a 2012 Vanity Fair article, Kurt Eichenwald explained how the policy impacted one organization that implemented it. "Staffers were rewarded not just for doing well but for making sure that their colleagues failed. As a result, the company was consumed by an endless series of internal knife fights. Potential market-busting businesses—such as e-book and smartphone technology—were killed, derailed, or delayed amid bickering and power plays," he wrote.

    While most organizations have shifted away from stack ranking, some still promote a "culture of genius," which values a single creator who comes up with new ideas.

    "Such a culture encourages people to outshine colleagues, sparking unhealthy competition," Zaki writes. "When workers are pitted against one another, they have little reason to contribute to collective ideas and are more likely to hide knowledge from their peers—damaging relationships and killing innovation."

    Overmanaging employees

    When leadership does not trust their employees, they "are more likely to restrict, pressure, and surveil them to ensure that they do the bare minimum and to prevent shirking and cheating—and employees read that mistrust loud and clear," Zaki writes. As a result, employees will likely "trust their organizations less, feel less motivated, and are—ironically—more likely to game the system," he adds.

    Ultimately, "[w]hen employers force workers to do at least the bare minimum, they make it much more likely that workers will do only that—and morale is harmed in the process," Zaki notes.

    How can organizations avoid (and reverse) cynicism?

    According to Zaki, organizations can take steps to "reverse course" if they have bred a culture of cynicism. Injecting "anticynicism" into an organization requires two approaches: 

    Shifting the culture

    When redirecting one company that had harmful policies, new leadership aimed to undo the company's cynical habits, which included a new review and incentive system.

    "No longer would employees be elevated for outshining their peers—or punished if their peers excelled. Instead they were reviewed and rewarded for collaborative behavior, such as how they showed up for others and created things together," Zaki writes. "That shift encouraged workers to lower their defenses and share knowledge, skills, and perspectives freely."

    Demonstrate trust

    According to Zaki, "[p]eople we put faith in are more likely to step up, demonstrating what economists call 'earned trust.'"

    "Demonstrating faith in people is an easy way for leaders to reduce mistrust and paranoia in their organizations," he adds. "Give people room to make their own choices. When you cultivate trust, teams excel." (Zaki, Harvard Business Review, September-October 2022)

    Three strategies to build baseline emotional support for your frontline staff

    Breaking down health care's "I'm fine" culture

    workforce emotional supportIn the wake of Covid-19, health care organizations must commit to providing targeted baseline emotional support for the three types of emotionally charged scenarios that health care employees are likely to encounter in their careers: trauma and grief, moral distress, and compassion fatigue.

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