“While culture might eat strategy for breakfast — cynicism will devour your carefully-nurtured culture for lunch, dinner, and snacks in between.”
–Jason Eckenroth, Cynicism: Predator Of Your Company Culture
We all know what cynicism looks like. It isn’t hard to spot. It’s all around us. Maybe what’s hard to accept is that it can’t be stopped, to admit the scary truth that it’s highly contagious. Anyone can succumb to it who isn’t willing to examine oneself. Or step outside of a group that has been infected and begin the hard conversations that can cure the poison.
But where does it come from? What causes cynicism? How can you protect yourself and your company from it’s corrosive effects? In today’s Startups Live, Founders fearlessly confront this treacherous enemy.
“So today’s article (posted above) is about cynicism taking a hold of your company’s culture,” Devon Milkovich got things rolling. “Sometimes it’s hard to detect this issue — has anyone here ever experienced working in a cynical company culture?”
“You mean ‘has anyone hired engineers?’” Wil Schroter joked. “The problem with cynicism is the difference between being curious and just pessimistic. I think a healthy dose of ‘Should we be doing this?’ is great. The problem with being a cynic is it’s too easy.”
“I often find myself asking ‘am I devil’s advocating – or just being a devil’,” said Ryan Rutan.
It seemed a spirited argument might begin when Wil replied, “‘Devil’s Advocate’ in my experience is code for ‘The person with the least creativity in the room’.”
Ryan was quick to respond, “Totally disagree with that. Most of my questions stem from thinking about alternate (creative) approaches.”
Alex Chudik jumped in, “…Definitely think the devil’s advocate can be both… you’re either trying to stem more creativity and build something better, or you’re just going against the other person for the sake of it – basically just saying their idea isn’t going to work. Guess it just depends what kind of devil you are. Which quickly defused any tension.”
“How can you actively detect it [cynicism]?“ Imran Siddiq kept the discussion on task.
“Well,” Devon stepped in, “I think generally speaking— people hate change. Comfortable feels good and when huge changes happen in a company— it’s either you’re excited or you’re dreading it.”
“I think people become cynical when they feel helpless and allow themselves to detach rather than be an active participant,” said Dr. Deborah Hecker. “Too easy to hide behind cynicism than to be proactive.”
“I think of cynicism as an unproductive reaction to disappointment.”
This perspective was received enthusiastically. And Steph Newton had a personal experience in mind that spoke to this mentality: “I was thinking back to when I helped the last startup I worked for go through an acquisition (to startups.co!) and I don’t think I was cynical. I think this is because I took the perspective of being more more curious / open as to what was going on. Don’t get me wrong, I went through all the stages of grief, watching this company I helped get off the ground go through the struggles it did. But, maybe that’s because I thought my role and participation was ending – and I wanted to help put a bow on the work I had previously done during the handoff. And, happy to say that it ended up becoming the beginning of a new adventure.”
Michael Kassing had a completely different take, “In my life I NEED someone to be a bit cynical. I need to balance my own rainbows and kittens.”
“Looking back at our previous conversations, being cynical towards mission and vision is non-negotiable. Being logically cynical can be helpful,” said Sherad Louis-Charles.
“Yeah – if you are cynical about the mission and vision – you’re in the wrong damn place,” agreed Ryan.
“I’m risk averse,” shared Sherad, “so I’m cynical, or, better put, skeptical by nature.”
“Good ideas don’t need cynicism,” asserted Ryan. “There is no reason to be negative about existing ideas if yours stand on their own. If getting your idea into the sunshine requires chopping down the others around it – probably not superior to begin with.”
“Jason talks about shifting from a cynical mindset ‘As a team, we discussed shifting our frame of mind from that of a “victim mentality” to that of a “creator mentality” and the importance of choice,’” noted Devon. “Has anyone ever noticed they’re being cynical at work or in life and you have to step back and realign yourself?”
“I could easily imagine a team becoming cynical if the team leader is authoritarian,” answered Dr. Hecker.
“It’s definitely a product of groupthink too,” added Alex. “One bad attitude on a team can make it easy for everyone to start looking at things in a negative way.”
“This is SO true,” replied Devon. “I was on a team with people like this and once they weren’t around anymore the atmosphere really did change for the better.”
“Agreed!” said Alex. “Definitely found myself becoming cynical just because the people around me were. Had to step back and realign for sure.”
“It’s what one does with the negative feelings that matter,” counseled Dr. Hecker. “Blaming situations is counterproductive. It’s identifying your negativity and taking responsibility for it rather than blaming others. Unchecked feelings of cynicism can take a big negative toll on interpersonal relationships, surely in the work environment.”
“Most of us can agree — cynicism is bad/ not a helpful way to deal with change,” Devon summarized. “So what are the ways to combat cynics or that mindset? What advice would you give a cynic?”
Steph answered, “I’m an optimist by default, ( _side note: I actually blame reading the book Pollyanna in the 2nd grade on this.. changed how I viewed the world_ ) but yeah. Look for the good in things. I also talked through all my feelings with my husband during the process, and with my old team, and we would raise each other up, and not discuss the negative ‘what-ifs’.”
“What’s a good way for co-workers to address negativity/cynicism say at lunch time when one co-worker is complaining?” Wil asked Dr. Hecker.
“First, the team must identify the toxins when they pop up in conversation. Secondly, educate the team about the nature of the cynicism/toxin and their destructiveness. Give examples; Third, create a plan within the team for how to handle the negativity. Fourth, create alternative ways to deal with the cynicism. HEAD ON. No need to dance around it. It’s too destructive to tolerate.”
“We’ve talked about a few sources of cynicism – could you share a bulleted list of the most common causes, Dr. Hecker? Understanding the root helps me find resolution,” said Ryan. “Choosing the right antidote requires knowing the poison.”
“I think of cynicism as a defense against disappointment, hurt, pain, helplessness. (Ex. I was rejected in a relationship so I will wall myself off from them in the future. One must confront their own discomfort and figure ways not to: blame others, be defensive, be contemptuous or to stonewall people (silent treatment). I am a big believer in To Thine own Self Be True. Face your demons and don’t act them out. To me, cynicism is a big acting out.”
“I really love this point in the article about combating cynicism,” said Devon: “‘Raw honesty: We would treat our staff as adults and not sugarcoat anything. If the circumstances required we hand out bowls of dog shit, we weren’t going to tell them it was chocolate pudding. We would be honest about the challenges.’ I really appreciate this approach because it puts a more realistic perspective on the problem and it becomes less of a mountain and more of a overcome-able obstacle.”
“Trying to resolve that point Devon with what Dr. Hecker is saying,” began Ryan. “If cynicism stems from personal discomfort – I’m not sure how honesty (which I agree is a good policy – the only policy) combats cynicism. Is truth harder to be cynical about? Logically yes – but if it is emotionally driven – logic was out the window with the baby and the bathwater!”
“Cynicism starts with the individual and spreads to the group. One needs to be honest with oneself. If they are being negative and they need to be confronted by the group. That’s the honesty.”
“I agree with this – I’m trying to understand how we can combat/ease/relieve cynicism in others not ourselves.”
“The key thing is that you can’t make someone not be cynical. You can point out to them the impact they are having on others. They must take ownership of their weakness. And hope they will do something about it – especially if they have a loyalty to the group.”
“That makes sense – I guess I was thinking a layer deeper – trying to get at the root cause and help them eliminate that. ie – if they feel powerless – how can I empower them?”
“Has anyone been skeptical or cynical of things and ended up being wrong?” asked Sherad.
“Preposterous,” wisecracked Ryan.
“I think we all have a some point.”
“I’ve found the problem with cynics (and critics) is that there is no cost to being wrong for them,” said Wil. “If they are right they never shut up about how right they were and if they are wrong they just shrug.”
“Cynicism = victimization, which is a deeply rooted character trait,” suggested Dr. Hecker.
“As you can probably guess in my responses here, my tolerance for cynics is super low because I feel like they add so little value. If we’re in a meeting and you have a counter point that could solve a problem better – that’s not being cynical to me.”
“I agree wholeheartedly,” Sherad spoke up. “But that just means they aren’t doing enough experiments.”
“I lived through this with pitching investors who are sorta paid to be cynical,” continued Wil. “When they said ‘that won’t work’ I would ask ‘What’s the answer that will work?’ and they literally never had an answer.”
“I’m an optimistic cynic myself. I always hope for the best (you have to as a startup founder), but I’ve been around the block enough times to know it probably won’t happen. But if I try to arm myself strictly with cynicism (as a cover for being defeatist) I won’t get anything done.”
“Realistic optimism,” assessed Dr. Hecker.
“I find that a lot of people aren’t ok with being wrong. I’m perfectly ok with being wrong. I do it all the time. In fact, my default position is that I’m probably wrong but going to try anyway.”
Dr. Hecker followed up by saying, “Secure people are okay with being wrong. Insecure ones are not.”
“I see this with lots of Founders,” said Wil. “A mentality of ‘Hey I could be wrong about this, so I don’t want to risk it.’ I think that sense of security (in my case) has come from being wrong so many times and yet working out a solution post-wrongness.”
“What you have done that many don’t is ‘working out a solution post-wrongness.’ Many wallow in their pride being hurt.”
“I was a highly competitive youth,” said Ryan, “and I think much of that has carried over – I find that not only am I not bothered by the full contact of alternate opinions – I actually thrive on that – I love the back and forth as long as both people are facing towards wanting a positive outcome. The thing that took some time was the willingness to shed the focus on winning. You have to remember that your competitors in this case are also on the same team.”
“That’s a great point,” said Wil. “You and I go through this a lot as teammates, where we don’t necessarily agree on the approach but zoom out an find middle ground on trying to get to the same outcome. Super valuable and fairly rare.”
“How do you ‘zoom out’?” asked Steph.
“It’s about keeping the frame of reference at the level of the outcome. If you get too focused on the individual paths to solution you lose that context. ‘Mine works better than yours at…yours fails here…’ When you get this far down into the weeds, you lose sight of the destination and start arguing about the benefits of gravel over brick…”
“You two are cooperative, and competitive in a healthy way,” noted Dr. Hecker.
Wil’s response was, “It works for us because we’ve had a lot of cycles between us. We have a lot in the bank. I know even if we don’t agree we’ll be onto something else later.”
The word hadn’t been mentioned yet, but maybe another potent weapon against cynicism is humbleness. Not everyone learns from their experience the same way, at the same rate – if at all. Humbleness allows Founders to absorb lessons and remain open rather than build fortifications that will likely lead to repeating mistakes.
Humbleness allows Founders to attain a perspective similar to Wil’s: “I’ve started 9 companies and 4 have been failures. There’s nothing awesome about it. But at this point, I’ve been through the start/fail lifecycle that I realize there’s no way to bat 1000%, and no matter how bad things go I’ll just restart.”
“I really admire how you have managed the failures,” said Dr. Hecker. “Many could learn a lot from you. That’s what keeps you striving for success.”
“Conflict resolution skills are critical in the work place, actually in life in general. With our team over the past 5 years, we’ve dealt with cynicism from different people in varying capacities. I don’t mean in a single meeting, I mean on a constant basis for certain people.”
“In every case, we’ve parted company with those folks.”
“I am going to design programs for 5-year olds, to teach them conflict resolution skills,” said Dr. Hecker. “Can you imagine how learning these skills early could change the world?”
While we wait for that new generation of experts at dealing with cynicism to mature, it’s worth keeping in mind that confronting/defusing – preventing! – cynicism begins with leadership. Courageous leaders always address cynicism…
Keith Liles is a freelance writer who loves travel, music, wine, hiking, poetry, and just about everything. He practices saying “yes” to life vigorously, rehearsing for the phone call when he’s asked to tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Follow Keith on Twitter @KPLiles.