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In Praise of Workplace Cynicism

December 15, 2000
Related Topics: Motivating Employees, Featured Article
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I got a call last week from my friend Dave. Mostof the time I love these calls. Dave has a massive IQ, a sharp wit, a ton ofinterests, and a rich life outside of work. Just don't ask him about life insideof work.

    If you do, you'll be treated to a ten-minute (at least) rantin which he'll describe ten (at least) things that are going wrong and how it'sall because of those %&@# managers and what he'd do if he were in charge isblah blah blah blah blah. Dave is one part Einstein and one part RodneyDangerfield. When it comes to the topic of work, he's as charming as a dentaldrill.

    In fact, if you look in the dictionary, here's what you'llfind: 

cynical-- adj. -- 1. believing that people are motivated in all their actions only byselfishness 2. contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives 3.sarcastic, sneering 4. Dave 

    Working with Dave must be areal test in human endurance. He seems to despise work, yet he always wants totalk about it. I'll bet the watercooler conversations in his workplace are --well, poorly attended. Who'd want to hang out with a person whose work-relatedcomments are chronically shrill? You can almost hear the chorus: "Let'sgive him his own damn watercooler in the far-off corner and have a separate onefor the rest of us."

He wanted to attend advanced collegecourses related to his work, but a committee decided against it.

    Wait, not so fast! Maybe the Daves of the work world havepretty good reasons for being so cynical. Maybe their cynicism could be -- dareI say it? -- helpful. Perhaps we should seek them out and engage them indialogue. Consider the following:

   Cynics are made, not born. Have you ever heard of a"cynic gene"? Have you met any toddlers who are "contemptuouslydistrustful of human nature and motives"? Can you recall having any of yourown "Dave moments" way back in the earliest years of your life? I'llbet not.

   Cynics usually have good reasons for being that way. AskDave why he's so worked up over work. He'll go on and on about his latest issues-- to such a degree that you'll want to stop listening and start backing away.But if you press forward with a few questions about his work history, thingswill start to make sense.

    You'll learn that Dave has generated plenty of improvementideas over the years, yet most of them have been put on the shelf. He wanted toattend advanced college courses related to his work, but a committee decidedagainst it. He served on a team that developed a new training program, but theboss took all the credit. Petty grievances? In some respects, perhaps. But it'seasy to see how one thing after another can make us negative.

   Cynics aren't slackers. It's tempting to label thecynics among us as people who simply don't want to carry their load. They're onthe sidelines, right? They're too busy taking potshots at the workplace insteadof stepping in to make things better. Okay, perhaps they spend more time on thefringe than in the fray. But deep down, cynics aren't less ambitious orhardworking than folks who always see the cup as half full. I know quite a fewDaves, and when it comes to rolling up the proverbial sleeves and getting a jobdone, I'd match them against anyone.

   Indifference is worse than cynicism. We've all seenworkplaces where people check their brains at the door. Do you want employeeswho mindlessly perform their tasks -- or people who still retain some passionabout their work life? Do you want a culture of denial where concerns arecovered up -- or an honest appraisal of reality? Do you want a workplace whereeveryone always goes with the flow -- or a place where people sometimes goagainst the grain? What would be best for the organization in the long run?

   Cynics can point the way to improvement. Manyworkplaces quietly exile the Daves of the world. But given all of the above,perhaps we should do just the opposite and seek them out. On teams, theirdifferent way of seeing things can sharpen ideas and spark new ones. In workareas, they can serve as a devil's advocate, getting us to question (finally!)our old procedures and processes. In entire organizations, they can serve as akind of B.S. indicator, giving voice to what's likely on the mind of the silentemployee majority.

    This is not to say that working with Dave can be loads offun. But it can be tremendously worthwhile and productive. Heck, even a dentaldrill serves an essential purpose.

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