At some point in our working lives, most of us feel that things at work would be fine if only we were in charge. Some people feel that way most of the time. They believe that the problems they and their coworkers encounter at work could be avoided or surmounted if someone competent were in control. This tendency to find fault with the management of the workplace and criticize the efforts of others who strive for excellence, while doubting their motives, is called organizational cynicism by psychologists.
Organizational Cynicism Origins and Definitions
The term cynicism originally referred to the beliefs of the Cynics, a small but influential school of ancient
Greek philosophers who stressed self-control and individualism as the path to virtue. In their pursuit of virtue, the Cynics believed that rejection of social mores was preferable to material wealth and social acceptance because antisocial behaviors such as incivility, rude manners, and criticizing others freed one from society’s bonds and restrictions. Rejection of social norms compels the individual to be self-reliant, and through self-reliance the individual attains a state of virtuous righteousness. In pursuing this ideal, the Cynics often took to scornful faultfinding in others. It is this sense of the word cynic that has come down to present-day use.
The idea that cynics direct their negativity toward past, present, and future events neatly captures the approach that many modern-day researchers bring to the study of organizational cynicism. An organizational cynic may be defined as someone who believes that workplace problems are solvable and improvements are possible but that change and improvement efforts are futile because of the failings of others and the inherent incompetence of the system.
As the pace at which companies reinvented themselves quickened during the later years of the 20th century, their employees became increasingly skeptical of yet another flavor-of-the-month change initiative. This is an ongoing theme of the popular Dilbert cartoon strip. Organizational researchers recognize that many of these initiatives (including quality circles, continuous quality improvement, six sigma, process reengineering, customer focus, etc.) require acceptance and support from employees to succeed. Indeed, employee resistance to change could doom these initiatives to failure; the belief that failure is inevitable becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that gives smug cynics a perverse I told you so satisfaction.
Research on Organizational Cynicism
Researchers adopt a number of conceptually distinct approaches to the study of cynicism. One school of study regards cynicism as a personality trait. Usually labeled cynical hostility, in this view cynicism is dysfunctional primarily in the realm of interpersonal relations. Studies indicate that cynics tend to be especially sensitive to social stress and, because of this, are likely to keep their cynical views to themselves. Even their spouses may not realize how cynical they are. Cynics have more job dissatisfaction, more job stress, and greater difficulties with the social and interpersonal environment at work than their noncynical coworkers.
Perhaps the best known treatment of cynicism as a dispositional characteristic is that of Donald Kanter and Philip Mirvis (1989). They conducted a national survey of cynicism among American adults. In their view cynicism develops from three key ingredients:
- Unrealistically high expectations of self or others
- Disappointment and frustration with outcomes and accomplishments
- Disillusionment and a sense of having been let down, deceived, or betrayed by others
They classified cynics into types, such as command cynics, squeezed cynics, and hard-bitten cynics, with each type having implications for how someone expresses a personal cynical worldview. In addition to negative evaluations of attempts by others to make improvements, cynicism breeds suspicion of the motives of change agents and antipathy toward those efforts. Their findings indicated that cynicism is related to distrust of management and coworkers, job dissatisfaction, and dissatisfaction with the employer. Other researchers who used the Kanter and Mirvis (1989) survey instrument found that cynics tend to have low self-esteem, but cynicism is unrelated to other personality traits such as introversion and extraversion as well as anxiety.
Some researchers approach the study of cynicism from a perspective of work and occupations. Arthur Niederhoffer (1967) pioneered the study of occupational cynicism by looking specifically at cynicism among police officers. In his view cynicism is an adaptive reaction for officers who must maintain an adversarial role toward the public they serve. Cynicism is thus a coping mechanism for dealing with frustration, which is learned through direct experience with duplicitous criminals and reinforced by a culture of cynical coworkers and supervisors.
Other researchers who followed the work of Niederhoffer identified specific targets of police cynicism, including the following:
- Organizational cynicism: problems will not be solved because of the bureaucratic way decisions are made
- Work cynicism: problems cannot be solved because of the nature of things; for example, human nature will always produce criminals
- Cynicism toward management: incompetent superiors
- Cynicism about rules and regulations: bureaucracy stymies effective action
- Cynicism about the legal system: criminals go free on legal technicalities
- Cynicism about fellow citizens: people try to get away with whatever they can
Findings showed that cynicism about specific targets relates differently to aspects of work performance, including relations with coworkers, encounters with citizens, and number of arrests made. Implications of this work are that a person can be more cynical with respect to some targets than others, and that social influences (peers, coworkers) identify acceptable targets of blame, which can vary across situations.
In this era (from the 1980s to the early 21st century) of mergers, acquisitions, downsizing, restructuring, and bankruptcies, management assurances about the future of the company fall by the wayside with the next episode of corporate drama, leaving workers with ever greater levels of distress, uncertainty, betrayal, and cynicism. Announcements of massive corporate layoffs regularly make headlines in today’s American economy, usually accompanied by stories of multimillion-dollar severance packages for the executives who engineered such success. Another approach to the study of organizational cynicism uses a contract violation framework to argue that cynicism develops from frustration and disappointment when management breaks implicit and explicit promises to employees. Unmet expectations are the culprit, particularly when these expectations are encouraged by executives and managers who tout each flavor-of-the-month change initiative as the new best path to success.
What is organizational cynicism?
These various approaches to the study of organizational cynicism contribute essential insights into its role in the psychology of the individual and as a dimension of social processes at work.
- There is a dispositional aspect to cynicism. Some people are generally more pessimistic than others, their general negative affectivity giving them a tendency to see the glass as half empty rather than half full. When they encounter frustration and duplicity, they are more likely than optimists to become cynical, expecting more of the same. It is probably negative affect that contributes to cynics’ difficulties in interpersonal relations.
- Although pessimists are likely to become cynical about a broader range of issues than optimists, cynicism nevertheless requires specific targets. If people are cynical, they have to be cynical about something. Pessimists may have many more targets of their cynicism than optimists, but given particular circumstances everyone is capable of becoming cynical about something.
- Cynicism serves a purpose. It is a psychological defense against disappointment and frustration that follows from naive credulity. Not only are cynics not as disappointed when promised benefits fail to appear, they are righteously reassured to know that their doubts were well founded.
- Cynicism is learned through direct experience and through group socialization. It is fair to say that most people begin their working lives eager to put skills acquired at school to use, learn new skills, earn a living, establish an identity, make new friends, and so on. From the outset their more experienced cowork-ers may try to convince newcomers that management cannot be trusted (Listen to us if you want to know how things really work around here), particularly in cases where the work group itself is highly cynical. However, it probably takes at least a few personal encounters with broken promises and misplaced priorities before eager anticipation turns to dejected cynicism. With experience comes wisdom and also, for many, cynicism.
- Cynicism implies behavior or, perhaps, lack of behavior. If you expect that the latest improvement program at work will fail, just like its predecessors, why bother to get involved? (Better to keep your head down until it passes.) There is some evidence, however, that cynics will become proactive if they believe their efforts can really make a difference. Cynics have been found to write more comments on employee opinion surveys than noncynics, and although the comments they wrote were negative in tone, they were also more specific about problem areas and more likely to suggest solutions than comments provided by noncynics.
Organizational Change and Organizational Cynicism
If you find yourself rolling your eyes in exasperation every time your employer announces another improvement initiative, you may be an organizational cynic. And you may be right. Research has not addressed the question of whether or not cynicism about workplace conditions is justified. We do know, however, that successfully implementing new processes and systems within large organizations is difficult. Most change initiatives require support and cooperation of employees to succeed. Too often, these efforts fail to live up to expectations. Sometimes they fail entirely, wasting resources and ultimately doing the company more harm than good. When they succeed, it can take years for the benefits of new approaches to become apparent.
Executives preparing to launch the next quality improvement or process reengineering program should not be surprised if they seem to be the only ones who are truly excited about it. To them, the need for change is obvious. Their company’s rapidly changing external environment forces the issue (via changing markets, technologies, resource costs, customer demands and expectations, etc.). Only through constant change can their company remain competitive.
To most people, however, change is unsettling and stressful. The known is comfortable, the unknown is threatening. Change is therefore resisted, and promises of benefits of change are met with cynicism. In reality, of course, change occurs continually. The challenge for organizational researchers is to increase their understanding of organizational cynicism and to develop change management strategies that are both effective and acceptable to those who make them succeed or fail.
- Dean, J. W., Jr., Brandes, P., & Dharwadkar, R. (1998). Organizational cynicism. Academy of Management Review, 23, 341-352.
- Kanter, D. L., & Mirvis, P. H. (1989). The cynical Americans: Living and working in an age of discontent and disillusion. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Niederhoffer, A. (1967). Behind the shield: The police in urban society. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.