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Is Employee Cynicism Killing Your Culture?
Snark and mocking may be hip, but also a red flag

By Rich Karlgaard  6/16/2014

Cynicism in a workplace can trivialize the gravity of bad behavior and normalize superior attitudes toward customers and even co-workers. It can be a red flag that something is seriously awry at your company.

When cynicism thrives in an organization, it can signal a lack of employee trust—a problem that’s gotten significantly worse over the last generation.

Building trust is not just a nice thing to do. It’s a strategic thing to do. Trust underlies effective working relationships. It improves group performance. It underpins organizational credibility and resilience. All of these factors contribute to a competitive advantage, because trust attracts talent, strengthens partnerships and retains customers.

You can tap into the strategic power of trust by consciously shifting your company’s culture. Here’s how:

Know that trust has two dimensions. First, there’s the external trust between an organization and its customers: Will a company stand behind its products? If something goes wrong, will the company do the right thing? The second dimension is the internal trust between employees, supervisors and top-level managers. Do leaders keep their promises? Can employees speak up without censure? Do people have each other’s back? Generally, what’s true externally is also true internally. Because cynicism can’t be eradicated if trust doesn’t extend in all directions, you need to start internally, with the employees on whose commitment and engagement your success depends. If they don’t feel that they can trust your company with their careers, you’re in trouble.

Be clear on what a culture of trust looks like. Your employees probably have strong opinions on trust at your company, and where they’d like to see improvements. Hold a companywide summit where everyone can share those opinions and include an anonymous component like a suggestion box or survey. Get everyone’s input, from the C-suite to the custodian. Your goal should be to pin down exactly how a culture of trust translates to leader and employee behaviors. Ask, “Who do we want to be?” Identify the ways cynicism manifests—for instance, through snarky comments, manipulating customers or talking behind co-workers’ backs. Then, together, establish some ground rules aimed at dissolving cynicism.

Get the rules in writing. Put the results of your trust summit in writing and ask all employees to sign this document. It should spell out actions like, “I will not badmouth customers” or “If I have something to say to an employee, I’ll say it to their face.” Some companies have even gone so far as to prohibit blind cc’ing in order to promote a culture of trust. Although you can’t outlaw cynicism, snark or talking behind someone’s back, an official “standards of behavior” document helps crystallize the attitude you’re hoping to cultivate. It shows that your organization is willing to go beyond lip service. Plus, people are more likely to abide by an agreement if they’ve signed their name to it.

Let the “Boy Scouts” and “Girl Scouts” lead. It doesn’t matter how intelligent, charming or technically capable leaders are if they don’t uphold the agreed-upon values. People will emulate leader behavior, whether it’s good or bad. It’s just human nature. Leaders who roll their eyes when a certain customer calls are giving employees permission to be similarly disrespectful. Complain about your boss in the break room and you can expect to overhear your own team making fun of you. The key is to hire and promote leaders who truly live the values your company espouses.

Never lie or hide the truth. There are many things you’re thrilled to share with your employees. “Our customer satisfaction scores are 15 percent higher this year!” or “Our first-quarter profits exceeded our goal!” Yet there are other things you might not be eager to share, like, “We’re going to have to downsize” or “There aren’t going to be any raises this year.” Tell them anyway. Even when the news is bad, people should never feel they’re being kept in the dark.

Show employees that you care. When people don’t believe their leaders care about them, not just as workers but as human beings, trust can’t thrive. And while it’s true that fake or contrived caring only increases cynicism, genuine caring dissolves it. This means leaders must be “people persons” who stand up for their employees’ best interests and don’t mind showing appropriate affection.

Aspire to predictability. Many of us want to be known as creative, outside-the-box thinkers, not bound by routine or limited by how “everyone else does it.” That’s fine for product development and marketing campaigns. Just don’t be unpredictable in your behavior, priorities or values. Unpredictability destroys trust. The couches of psychotherapists are filled with people whose parents were unpredictable. As a leader, your team should have total confidence that you’ll do what you say you will. They should have no doubt that you’ll keep your promises, act with integrity and look out for their best interests.

Make it safe to speak up. When your employees make an honest mistake, can they admit it without being scolded or belittled? What about input and ideas? Can they share those things and expect to be taken seriously? Everyone should feel confident that they can participate in meetings and projects, say what’s on their mind, be respected for their opinions and ideas, and admit mistakes. In a climate of fear, people are afraid to make mistakes. A fear-based culture kills employee curiosity, quells exploration, dulls creativity, stunts growth and saps performance, synergy, teamwork and morale.

Celebrate grit and gumption. If you want your employees to be partners, you’ve got to reward them when they behave like partners. Take notice when they display passion, motivation, initiative and gumption. A simple thank-you can go a long way. So can public recognition at a meeting or through a companywide e-mail. Perks like “free” vacation time or bonuses are always welcome. When people are truly engaged, it’s hard for them to be cynical.

Drive home the “meaning” of the work. Why do you exist? What value do you offer employees, customers or society? A great purpose should be aspirational, not merely financial. It should create a common cause and promote a collective effort. It should answer all the tough questions of why: Why commit? Why persist? And, most important, why trust? Figure out what meaningful things your company provides customers, whether that’s peace of mind, easier lives or reliable support, and look for ways to convey that purpose at your company. It’s hard to be cynical about your work and your customers when you believe in what you’re doing.

Rich Karlgaard is author of The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2014). He is also publisher of Forbes magazine, where he writes a column, Innovation Rules.

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