#Organisational psychology

How To Learn From Organisational Cynicism - A Secret Source of Wisdom

posted 09-03-2022

By Daria Ofman


“We have tried everything already.”

“On the larger scale of things, it is all bullshit.”

“The system is messed-up.”  

They are not going to move anyway.”

When we come across cynicism, many feel FRUSTRATED. After all, cynicism often keeps things from moving forward, perpetuates the status quo and puts the burden of proof on those who are eager to change it. Cynicism often reveals individuals disconnected from the organisational purpose and increased levels of disagreement when change processes are initiated. In my work on creating systemic shifts for social change within organisations, I regularly face cynicism and I too, often find it incredibly draining. I’ve had my fair share of conversations with both skeptical executives who are resistant to change as well as with discouraged change leaders and initiative leaders who are burned out and feel that there is no way forward. But despite how challenging these conversations are, I have also come to appreciate them. Why? Because there is always important knowledge that is essential in our journey of collective learning. 

When I work with organisations, I use cynicism like a thermometer, a first aid tool to organisational growth and well-being. The surface layer of cynicism conceals deeper organisational issues and experiences. It measures congealed pain, disappointment, and structural feelings of powerlessness in an organisation. This attitude of suspicion, the belief that the future is bleak, and people are acting out of self-interest, usually has very legitimate reasons for existing. 

When cynicism arises in a conversation or a group dialogue, it means that at some point, somebody really cared, exhausted effort, and poured their heart and soul into something. It also means that people got disappointed, were not heard, nor got the acknowledgement they feel they deserved. When care and love are dismissed a protection mechanism, cynicism, creeps in.

Yet in this pain and friction lies our greatest potential to grow and learn too. That is where better decisions come from: more inclusive and well thought-through. Hearing organisational cynicism is a wake-up call that there is work to do. There is no one-size-fits-all solution but listening to cynicism will provide the first pointers. 

How can you begin to experience the surprising wisdom of cynicism? 

Move towards the resistance. Ask yourself: what can this teach me? What voices keep me from learning? Slow down, sit still and listen without already framing, boxing, or judging the answer. 

Allow yourself to not know. This is very hard for humans, especially humans with systemic position i.e. management teams. Do I allow space for uncertainty, experimentation, and curiosity? Do I really? 

Check for Extrinsic Incentives Bias. This is the tendency to assume that others are always more driven by external reward than me. This phenomenon perpetuates a belief that “I am motivated by morality and internal drive, but others are only incentivized by either the carrot (status, visibility, financial gain, etc.) or the stick (punishment, loss or discipline)”. When you notice this happening within yourself or with others it is time for a good conversation, some genuine listening and the humility to not-know, once again ☺. 

Create space for personal agency. Cynical thoughts come in when people feel they can’t, at least in part, determine their own future. If you notice cynicism arising in your team or organisation, ask yourself: Where do people feel like their sense of personal agency is hindered? Maybe it is time to review whether the existing explicit, or implicit governance structure needs updating. 

Keep in mind that cynical comments and sarcastic jokes are signs to pay attention. What am I, what are we not seeing? It may not be solvable immediately, and there is not a single solution, but making real connections is definitely the beginning.  

The change work that we do at Better Future with organisations is MESSY, FRUSTRATING, COMPLEX, AND PARADOXICAL. But that’s why I love it – it takes an incredible amount of energy, sensitivity, and power to gauge what is happening below the surface and bring that to light in a way that moves our clients to co-create a world that they want to live in. 


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