How to face cynicism at work?

One of the typical and growing challenges of working life is cynicism – a sort of indifference and mental resignation. Psychologist and Emergy’s emotional coach Jarkko Rantanen urges to look behind cynicism.

“I don’t have energy to care about what’s going on here anymore. Nothing will change anyways. I just do my job somehow, I don’t have energy to try to change anything anymore. Whatever.”

Cynicism is unfortunately common. According to statistics, about 48 percent of employees are somewhat cynical. Gallup’s research shows that 87 percent of employees are not actively engaged in their work.

Employee cynicism – who is at fault?

Is it the fault of employees who don’t do their jobs properly and who would need a little shaking and kicking in their backs? Could the situation be remedied if clearer targets were set and a new bonus system was built? Or should cynical employees be laid off and start to look for new, more committed employees?

Sometimes, of course, it can be that the job and the employee are not a good match at all, and that dismissal (or resignation) is the right solution. But should we replace the 48 percent of workers who are somewhat cynical? And would the end result be any better if there is something in the ways of doing the work itself that feeds cynicism?

“We find a better way to deal with cynicism when we really get into what it is like to be a human in working life.”

Instead of stigmatizing the behaviour of a cynical employee as good or bad, we can examine the emotions and needs that drive an employee to such behaviour and the circumstances that fuel the ill-being.

What is cynicism?

Much is known about the psychology of cynicism. We know that it is a human way to protect oneself from disappointment – cynicism is a mechanism of self-defense. A cynical and cynical person ceases to experience many important positive emotions in working life, such as curiosity, enthusiasm, and hope. What makes a person give up things that would be rewarding and nourishing for himself?

Curiosity and enthusiasm include the message that things in the workplace are important in some way – that you are interested in them, that you care about what is happening in the workplace and that it is not indifferent in which direction things are going. When an employee asks about workplace matters, he or she shows interest and at the same time expresses that he or she cares.

If interest is not echoed or if it is slated in the wrong way, feelings of embarrassment and shame will surface. Or if the employee is hopefully and eagerly awaiting changes that then don’t materialize, (s)he will experience repeated disappointments.

There is also a message of caring in hope. In hoping something better, the employee shows that the matters at workplace are important to her/him: maybe the next organisational reform would bring relief to the slowness of the processes; once the goals have been achieved, one can probably breathe a moment; perhaps more manpower will finally be obtained and the constant shortage of resources will be eased; maybe in the next development dialogue (s)he would finally be properly heard. If these wishes are not fulfilled however, an unwanted negative emotional state, disappointment, will arise.

We protect ourselves from such experiences by restraining ourselves. We don’t show any interest. We make ourselves invisible and thus the cynicism grows – “whatever, I am not interested”, we may think. The employee no longer takes the risk of being openly interested and caring because, (s)he believes (s)he will be rejected and disappointed.

How should a manager handle employee cynicism?

The management and supervisors are often wondering as to why employees are not interested in, for example, a new strategy or new operating models. The reason may be that they don’t dare to care anymore. They have become cynical.

What should be then done with cynical employees? The basic principles of emotional leadership can take you far.

  1. Tuning into emotional frequency (forget the rational reasons for a moment!)
  2. Speak about their emotions. Ask about the situation of the cynical employee with genuine interest and appreciation.
  3. Ask how you can help.
  4. Discuss about the situation with them, speak about their expectations and hopes. If necessary, involve occupational health care or another expert in the discussions.

When emotions are taken into account, the mind works better and solutions are easier to find. And, of course, it is also important for a cynical employee to have plenty of reparative experiences — experiences that her/his enthusiasm will resonate, her/his wishes will be heard, and the promised things will actually come true.


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