Cynicism and Its Impact on Success

Posted: December 23, 2012 by Tom Heuer in Innovation, People, Startup

heuerIn our entrepreneurial leadership classes, I spend a significant amount of time discussing cynicism and its negative impact on innovation, business start-ups and people in general.  I have very rarely experienced cynicism in the classroom but more often on consulting engagements with companies who are struggling.  Recently, I had the “distinct pleasure” of engaging a cynic in a strategy session with an emerging company.  He was just “popping his chops” about all the “absolutely crazy decisions” the owners were making to cut costs and redistribute the resources to a risky but growing product line.  This encounter was everything that people had shared with me about cynics – very negative, a roadblock to success, a lot of wasted energy in dealing with them, a downer, and so forth.

Remember, this was a fledgling, entrepreneurial company fighting for its start-up life.  The company leaders initially responded to the cynic like most work groups – ignored him or praised his comments.  One owner strategized, “Let’s try to bring him into the conversation by agreeing with him.  He is important to us.”  Did I hear that this menace is important to this entrepreneurial company’s success?  (I later found out that the menacing cynic was the company’s CFO.)  As the session progressed, each participant realized how much wasted energy this guy created.  Loud disagreements, constant bickering and caustic comments accelerated.  It was destructive for this new team to hear.  As the outrageous comments continued, two guys had the courage to offer some coaching directed at his cynical behavior.  He listened, but it only served to raise his negativity.  This situation sealed my belief that it takes four upbeat people to offset one cynic. 

Understanding Cynicism and the Entrepreneur

What you learn from this situation about successful start-ups and cynical employees?

  • Cynicism is debilitating.  It negatively affects the work the environment.  It impacts the entire company.  A corporate start-up should be an upbeat situation – not confrontational and subdued.  Cynicism lets the air out of the opportunity and turns the odds against a successful start-up.
  • It is difficult for entrepreneurs to confront the cynic.  Their make-up tends to avoid conflict and failure.  Entrepreneurs believe that the cynic will either disagree with them or ignore them.  Neither outcome is acceptable – so, they do nothing at all.  The cynic depends on the “upbeats” to not take action.  Status quo is safer than confrontation.  It is out of profile for the entrepreneur to confront the cynic for the purpose of change.  If you are unable to accept the challenge of confronting the cynic, your company will fall short of the mark and will experience a slow death.
  • According to the book, The Cynical American, nearly 50 percent of all workers in corporate America are cynical.  Cynics are frustrated by their existence.  Without coaching and a personal commitment to change, cynics are lost in their own pool of self-doubt and discontentment.  As an entrepreneurial leader, we can change our company’s trajectory and fortunes by breaking this hold of cynicism.  How?  Listen, confront and understand.

Finally, if this strategy does not work for you, please do your employees, investors and customers a favor – dispatch the cynics as quickly as possible.  Your results will fall short of expectations until you have the courage to take action.  Your stakeholders are waiting for you to step up NOW.

Entrepreneurs, this is about leadership – Your Leadership.  And leadership makes the difference between mediocrity and opportunity.

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