Workplace cynicism – do we like it or loathe it?

Is workplace cynicism a bad thing? I ask this without a preconception of the answer – I certainly have experienced its negative effects, but I’m also interested in whether it can be a force for good.

I suspect as technical communicators we have all had to put on a brave face and work with cynics at some time. It can be really hard if management has tasked you with working with someone who doesn’t want to help you, or doesn’t trust your motives. Their mistrust can be directed at management, or at your ability to fathom and document what they do, or at the worth of the “deliverables”. As the representative of management’s desire for documentation, you can be on the receiving end of a lot of negativity.

I’m supposing here that how we cope with that negativity varies a lot, depending on our own personality. I tend to try and take an optimistic view and encourage the cynic to do likewise – by saying things like “this is not being done to replace you – it’s recognition of the value of your knowledge and expertise” and “the boss wants to be able to provide backup for you so that if you’re unwell or need time off for a holiday, another trained person can step in to keep things going. You don’t want to come back to a big mess, or have someone set up to fail because there’s nothing written down, do you?”. Sometimes though, that approach is just as naïve as it sounds, and you have to just roll your eyes (at “management”) and go “I know, I know – I’m sorry, but I really need your help on this.”

I think some people positively pride themselves on their cynicism, in much the same way that others revel in bouncy, Tigger-like optimism. It is a part of their individuality that they wouldn’t want to change, and they actively use their cynical viewpoint to filter their world quite constructively.

However, I think cynicism is bad if it is making someone bitter and unhappy. Cycnicism can be toxic, especially if it’s car-pooling with the cynic and being brought home to share with the family each night. On the other hand, it’s presumably a good thing if it induces a touch of caution at the start of some hare-brained scheme.

Sometimes employees are cynical because they have been through multiple changes all meant to “improve” things, and the improvements have either not eventuated or not been communicated. So perhaps as TCs we have role to play in making sure that everyone knows what change is required, what success will look like, and what success has actually been achieved.

Cynicism is something we need to understand quite well, when planning to communicate change. What do others think, and what experiences have you had with cynicism in the workplace?

“If there’s one thing that makes me cynical, it’s optimists. They are just far too cynical about cynicism. If only they could see that cynics can be happy, constructive, even fun to hang out with, they might learn a thing or two.”

Julian Baggini

2 thoughts on “Workplace cynicism – do we like it or loathe it?

  1. That’s a reflective post. I wonder what sparked it?

  2. Wow – hi “The Stig” – welcome to the TCANZ blog.

    Cynicism is something that crops up again and again in my every day work. At the time I wrote that post, I was starting a project at a company in the middle of tense union negotiations. We were also looking at introducing a new approach to training documentation for another client, and one of their team was expressing doubt at the organisation’s commitment to change. So finding ways around cynicism was on my mind, and I thought it might spark some general conversation (it didn’t, until today).

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