Harold Hillman: Don't become the team cynic

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Are you that person who nobody wants to be around?
Photo / iStock
Photo / iStock

There is nothing cute or endearing about being the team cynic. Don't get this label confused with the team sceptic.

A sceptic is the person who puts a critical eye over any solution that everybody else may take for granted. A sceptic always questions the rationale of each decision, not to be a pain in the rear, but to make sure that the team doesn't rush to a decision that might backfire. You can see the value that a sceptic brings to any important decision.

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A cynic is a different creature. Whereas sceptics are often suspicious of the path, cynics are suspicious of the motive. That takes negativity to a much deeper level, where the person's starting position is one of distrust.

The sceptic on the team feels okay about backing the decision, just so long as they were able to vet the pros and cons. The cynic distrusts the intent behind the decision and, very often, the decision makers. And they are masterful at pointing up, blaming others and shirking responsibility.

What causes cynicism?

There's no evidence that people are born cynical. Mostly it is shaped through bad experiences with trust.

Cynics are usually people who were once pretty motivated - who even spoke the party line - but feel they got burned along the way. The longer they stay on board, the more frustrated they grow. Over time, they have a clever way of masking that frustration as wisdom.

They almost see being the cynic as a badge of honour - to be like that kid who's standing at the back of the classroom, trying to be cool, refusing to smile so it doesn't look like he's enjoying himself - because that would imply that he is buying in to what is being sold. Cynics believe that you shouldn't buy into anything. To buy in means that you have sold out.

Every time something fails or goes off course, the cynic feels validated for not investing too deeply in the project.

For the cynic, it is all about keeping safe and playing the game with caution. Like in a game, they want to anticipate where they need to be standing when the latest initiative fails. They want to be distant enough from it to avoid any blame, yet close enough to yell, "I told you so."

Every time something fails or goes off course, the cynic feels validated for not investing too deeply in the project. They believe that managers will come and go - and so will all the silly initiatives that keep getting re-cycled through the business. The seasoned cynic has seen it all before.

Five signs of a cynic

There are some common signs that a person is a cynic. Unfortunately, their own ego sometimes prevents them from seeing what other people see. It's not a pretty picture when you put it all together.

1. Negative and disengaged

Cynics gripe and grumble, take verbal shots at people just out of hearing range, and mutter a lot to themselves. The cynic will chuckle in a patronising way at the younger team members who really believe in what they're signing up for. The cynics usually sit in the back of the room, where they can scan the playing field - and the players - in the latest initiative.

Cynics are on the far end of being disengaged. And if they are very senior in rank, the impact of their negativity can be toxic to the team. There is nothing worse than working for a cynical manager. You feel trapped. You have to listen to them because you need the job. But they are such a drain on your energy and your can-do attitude.

2. Us versus them

The distrust of management - and any initiative that comes from the top - is a major part of the cynic's brand. They see every change initiative as 'flavour of the month' - a fancy project name for it with lots of bells and whistles, but underneath is yet another cost initiative that will try to get more work out of fewer people.

With this mentality, the cynic hunkers down until the fan-fare subsides and everyone can get back to business as usual. With each cycle of this pattern that they live through, cynics feel justified in their distrust of hierarchy.

3. Crafty and clever

Cynics survive many cycles because they are good at knowing exactly when to flash the smile and nod yes, often banking on their years of experience to make the cut. They saddle up next to the newest manager to offer some sage advice on 'how things really work around here' - careful to be seen as someone who they can count on.

Then counter that with all the under-handed remarks and innuendos that fly just below the radar screen of management, where the cynic - still trying to be the cool kid - will sow the seeds of doubt wherever there is a willing audience.

4. Lurking in the shadows

The society of cynics can't exist without new blood, so they actively target fresh recruits. Their most gullible prey are people who have just joined the company.

The cynic will lurk in the shadows and wait to pick the newbie off from the rest of the team - to have a side conversation positioned as 'showing them the ropes.'

Other gullible recruits are teammates who have been shuffled around a few times in change programs - perhaps on the verge of yet another one. They want to remain hopeful and optimistic, but they can't help but hear the cynic chuckling contently from the back of the room. The cynic sees them as prime targets to feed on.

5. Avoided like the plague

This is the person that no one wants to sit next to at the team meeting - the meeting where everybody is expected to open up and trust the process. The cynic tells you why it's all bullshit and why he's not going to waste his time. The implication is that you'll do the same if you want to be cool too. He has no idea that you can't wait to sit next to someone else.

Cynicism is a mental toxin that will inevitably slow down any major change you're trying to drive. Confront it at the earliest onset, before it has a chance to take root.

Can you convert a cynic?

Is cynicism like being bitten by a vampire - once bitten, you're no longer human? It's not quite as fatal, but it usually takes some work to turn a cynic around.

Here are some ways to help:

Point out the negativity. Hold the mirror up. Let them see what you see and hear what you hear. Ask if it's their intent to come across as negative as they do, or to always dampen the optimism when the team wants to do something different. If a person isn't self-aware, they may not know that they are turning other people off. Be the one who holds the mirror up, especially if you think the cynic really does add value and can turn things around.

Ask for more skin in the game. This is called accountability. It's about having some personal ownership for the outcome, rather than griping and complaining about nobody knowing what they're doing. Having skin in the game also makes it harder for the cynic to be the victim, which is an excuse that they like to use when things go wrong.

Put them in charge. The best way to deal with those people who lurk in the shadows is to put them in charge of the program, or at least some major part of it. It's harder for them to be hypocrites when they are the final point of accountability in the chain of command. Being in charge makes it harder to sabotage the game plan. If you want to turn up the heat on cynics, let them conduct the orchestra for a change.

Make it a team penalty. It helps if the team has a charter that paints a vision for how the team should perform when it is at its peak. That would include behaviours that support that vision, as well as behaviours that are a big drain on the team's energy. It should be a team penalty to accept cynicism as a norm, or to excuse a person's cynicism as 'how they are.'

A cynic's drain on the team's momentum can be huge. You would penalise any player on the team who intentionally sabotages the team's ability to win the game. Cynicism is a mental toxin that will inevitably slow down any major change you're trying to drive. Confront it at the earliest onset, before it has a chance to take root.

Reinforce trust. Push back when the team cynic uses the excuse that no one will hear them out or take them seriously. Encourage them to take the high road to see if they can influence outcomes through candid conversations with others on the team. Don't take the cynic's word that no one will listen or hear their views. Offer to take part in the discussion to see if you can help reach a better outcome.

- NZ Herald

Harold Hillman is an executive coach and author. He has a Master's Degree in Education from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. Previous roles include Chief Learning Officer at Prudential Financial (New York). Hillman came to New Zealand in 2003 to join Fonterra and is now the MD of Sigmoid Curve Consulting Group, where he coaches business leaders and executive teams. He is the author of two books: ‘The Impostor Syndrome’ and ‘Fitting In, Standing Out.’

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