Why Cynicism Matters When You’re Making Change

Cynicism has the potential to stop your change movement cold. But don’t despair—beneath every cynic is a disappointed idealist.

Cynicism is a belief that things (people, systems) can’t change. Left unchecked, it can tank change initiatives. And cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy—if key people don’t believe change can happen, their harrumphing often keeps the people around them from making it happen.

Multiple studies show that up to 48% of workers are at least somewhat cynical. Increased cynicism may be one result of changes in the implied psychological contract between employees and companies—the set of unspoken promises each makes to the other. People are working longer hours on intense problems under the constant threat of organizations and whole industries flattening, merging, restructuring, and even disappearing. Under those circumstances, it’s hard to remain optimistic that today’s changes will bring about a better tomorrow.

It doesn’t help that “everyone’s” heard that 70% of change initiatives fail. That’s a stat a cynic would love. But that stat comes from a study that defined “success” with a very high bar: total transformation. Later research has shown that 65-70% of change initiatives are moderately successful, and that over time, drastic transformations can in fact take place.

To get to those positive outcomes, however, you need to keep cynics from killing your momentum. They’re influential. When they speak, people listen, if only to see which way the wind is blowing. The good news is that cynical people are not just skeptics, pessimists, or grumps. Nor are they merely resisting change out of laziness. Cynics are disappointed idealists. They’ve had experiences that taught them not to believe in change. They can articulate their position, and are happy to explain why change won’t work. And even though cynicism is part of burnout, which is often considered the opposite of engagement, they are actually quite emotionally invested in what’s going on. Treat them right, and they might turn into your biggest champions for change.

Here’s how NOT to deal with cynics:

  • Don’t argue with them. They may wholeheartedly agree that the thing you propose would be a great idea—they just don’t think it’s possible.
  • Don’t try to inspire them. They’ve been hurt before, probably by someone acting just like you. And they won’t let themselves get hurt again.

There’s only one thing that will convert a cynic: seeing things change in front of their eyes. To learn more, watch NOBL founder Bud Caddell and Kim Perkins, Ph.D. in Positive Organizational Psychology, discuss how to convert a cynic into a champion, and even help participants confront their own cynicism:

Published October 22, 2019

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