#258 from R&D Innovator Volume 6, Number 1          January 1997

Countering Cynicism
by M. Michael Markowich, DPA

Dr. Markowich, a consultant, speaker and author, specializes in organizational development and the management of change, and is on the faculty of Temple University School of Business.  He is located in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, and can be reached at (215) 938-1687.

With terms like empowerment, involvement and ownership filling the massive management literature, you’d think that, by now, all workers would be excited about their work and would trust their management.  However, many remain cynics, mistrusting their bosses, and management in general.  So how can management gain trust, and gain the energy and creativity that comes from such trust?

My recommendations are based on the following five assumptions:

1)  People want to:
·  have some control over their work environment
·  make a difference
·  be treated fairly
·  help the organization succeed
·  be paid a reasonable salary

2)  People don’t come to work to:
·  be fired
·  see their positions eliminated
·  see their organization go out of business

3)  People have a vested interest in seeing their company prosper.

4)  People support what they help create.

5)  People aren’t, by nature, passive or resistant to organizational needs.

With these assumptions, let’s consider the following actions.

Be Credible

It’s difficult to be cynical if you believe in your boss.  People will be loyal to a leader who has earned employees’ respect.

A company was undergoing a union drive and the president sent every employee a note asking them to vote against the union.  However, the note had the opposite effect.  He had minimal credibility with his employees.  He hardly left the executive suite, and was seen as the invisible ruler.  As a result, any hope of defeating the union disappeared with that note.

Share the Spotlight

Allow employees to distinguish themselves.  Let others become heroes.  In a cynical company, it’s not unusual to hear that it’s only a good idea if the boss thinks of it!

I know of a case where a specialist saved many thousands of dollars through a simple auditing change.  Her manager, asked her to send the report of this savings directly to the president.  The manager was willing to give the specialist all of the credit.  Most managers, I believe, would have contacted the president, themselves.

Help Your Staff

Ask not what your workers can do for you, but what you can do for your workers.  Are you a problem solver or a problem causer?  A manager’s value is often a product of other’s efforts.  Why should subordinates work hard to make the boss look good?  One reason is if the manager helps employees with their work.  This can happen by being available to answer questions and remove obstacles.

Consider an employee whose performance is based on receiving accurate and timely information from other departments.  If the information is late or inaccurate, the employee may complain and look to the manager for help.  You can imagine the impact of a manager who assists versus the manager who isn’t interested, or is too busy, to get involved.

Customers Come First

Lack of respect for customers is a key ingredient in a cynical company.  Unfortunately, many employees take their frustration out on customers—the people who really pay their salaries.

I came across Audrey whose job it was to resolve customer problems.  Many times a customer would be very upset and emotional.  They took it out on Audrey.  However, she always kept her cool.  I asked what her secret was and Audrey responded with, “I don’t have the problem, the customers do.  My job is to help them, so why should I get upset just because they’re upset?”  She knew her job, and did it well.

Share Power

Staff who have the greatest involvement in the planning process, have the highest level of interest and commitment.  One way to achieve this involvement is through self-managing work teams, where a group of workers decide the best way to achieve output.  Another way is through gain-sharing, where employees receive part of the savings realized by achieving projected productivity targets.  Programs that encourage employee involvement have turned many failing companies around.

Listen to Staff

It’s risky to ask employees for their opinions.  If takes guts to do something other than to say, “We’ll take your ideas under advisement.”  I’ve looked into why people are generally reluctant to give ideas for improvements.  They had learned to be cynical for these reasons:

Fear the boss will take credit if the idea works; but if it fails, credit will quickly be attributed to the person who had the idea.

Fear of being embarrassed or put down by the boss.

Fear that co-workers will resent the idea.

Fear that the boss will view the idea as a threat.  “Is he trying to show me up?”

Fear that the boss will see the employee as a troublemaker.

New employees have an especially difficult time offering ideas.  Co-workers may be afraid, or jealous, of a potentially fast-rising star.  “What makes that new employee think she already knows how to do things better?”

You need to create an atmosphere where staff will offer ideas; a few will be good, many only O.K., and a few will be bad.  However, without an environment that fosters new ideas, you won’t be getting those few good ones.  And they are what you need to survive in these fast-paced times.


Companies often share the pain during hard times: cutbacks, wage freezes and demanding more are examples.  But what happens when the company turns around?  More often than not, it is only the higher levels of administration that are rewarded.  Some executives fear that bonuses and other incentive programs will become expectations, once granted. 

I find that employees accept discontinuation of bonuses in bad times if facts are given and if there’s a willingness to share the spoils.  Can you blame workers for being cynical when they don’t receive raises for financial reasons, but executives still get their bonuses?

TGIM and not TGIF

Thank God it’s Monday, and not Thank God it’s Friday.  You have arrived when employees say TGIM and not TGIF.  You probably laughed when seeing TGIM.  However, think about the amount of time you spend traveling to work, working and then returning home.  Multiply the hours by five.  It’s a big number.  You owe it to yourself and your employees to go from TGIF to TGIM.

The failure to defeat cynicism will be very costly and is one battle management cannot afford to lose.  Fortunately, cynicism doesn’t have to prevail.  The legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi, said, “It’s not a question of how you play, but whether you win.”  However, I believe, “How we play will determine if we win.”

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