writing for him Harvard Business ReviewJamil Zaki, professor of psychology at Stanford Universityexplains how your company can reinforce cynicism among employees and how to reverse it.
What drives cynicism?
From a young age, we are equipped with what some scientists call “cheater detection,” which helps us distinguish between good and bad actors. However, this can also lead to “positive-negative asymmetry”, causing us to assume the worst in others.
“In other words, we imagine a version of others that is much worse than the real flesh and blood people,” Zaki writes. “And when we interact with that version instead of the real you, our responses can cause harm and further spread cynicism.”
According to Zaki, “[c]Ynics often act as if the best defense is a good offense.”
Cynical people are generally less willing to help others and are more likely to assume the worst in others and mirror expected behavior. For example, a study led by Malia Mason in Columbia University found that people who think others are dishonest are more likely to negotiate dishonestly.
“People reciprocate kindness and retaliate against cruelty, which means that the actions of cynics bring out the worst in others,” Zaki writes.
People who identify as cynical often believe that their cynicism is “hard-earned wisdom” and believe that anyone with a different perspective is naive, Zaki writes.
“Although they may accuse others of blind trust, it seems that the same blind cynics distrust,” he adds.Seeing everyone through the same dark lens, they miss the signs that distinguish cooperators from cheaters. However, as long as people continue to believe that cynicism is smart, the cynics will be rewarded.”
How the practices of an organization can generate cynicism
Ultimately, human psychology isn’t the only driver of employee distrust. “It’s quite possible that your company’s policies and practices are also based on and reinforce cynicism,” Zaki writes.
Two of the most common practices that foster cynicism include:
‘Zero Sum Leadership’
A strategy known as “stack ranking” rewards the best while issuing warnings or firings to those who fall behind. While the strategy is designed to encourage “natural” competitiveness, it also leads employees to see their workplace as a zero-sum game.
in a 2012 vanity fair article, Kurt Eichenwald explained how the policy affected an organization that implemented it. “Employees were rewarded not only for getting it right, but for making sure their colleagues failed. As a result, the company was consumed by an endless series of internal knife fights. They were killed, derailed, or delayed in between.” of disputes and power games,” he wrote.
While most organizations have moved away from stack sorting, some still promote a “genius culture,” which values a single creator who comes up with new ideas.
“Such a culture encourages people to outshine their peers, leading to unhealthy competition,” Zaki writes. “When workers are pitted against each other, they have little reason to contribute to collective ideas and are more likely to hide knowledge from their peers, damaging relationships and killing innovation.”
When leaders don’t trust their employees, “they are more likely to restrain, pressure, and police them to make sure they do the bare minimum and to avoid evasion and cheating, and employees see that mistrust loud and clear,” Zaki writes. As a result, employees are likely “to trust their organizations less, feel less motivated and, ironically,plus will probably game the system,” he adds.
Finally, “[w]When employers force workers to do at least the bare minimum, they make it much more likely that workers will do only that, and morale is damaged in the process,” says Zaki.
How can organizations avoid (and reverse) cynicism?
According to Zaki, organizations can take steps to “reverse course” if they have created a culture of cynicism. Injecting “anti-cynicism” into an organization requires two approaches:
changing the culture
By redirecting a company that had damaging policies, the new leadership aimed to undo the company’s cynical habits, which included a new review and incentive system.
“Employees would no longer be elevated for outshining their peers, or punished if their peers excelled. Instead, they were reviewed and rewarded for collaborative behavior, such as how they showed up to others and created things together,” writes Zaki. “That change encouraged workers to lower their defenses and share knowledge, skills and perspectives freely.”
According to Zaki, “[p]People we trust are more likely to step forward, demonstrating what economists call ‘earned trust.'”
“Showing faith in people is an easy way for leaders to reduce mistrust and paranoia in their organizations,” he adds. “Give people room to make their own decisions. When you cultivate trust, teams excel.” (Zaki, Harvard Business ReviewSeptember-October 2022)