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How to Lead Cynics

Be honest, play fair, and do what you say you are going to do.

We (and by we, I mean a random sample of American adults) have a pretty cynical opinion of you (and by you, I mean business executives). According to a Gallup poll conducted in December, 28 percent of us rate your honesty and ethical standards as low or very low, 54 percent rate them as average, and just 16 percent rate your honesty and ethics as high or very high. To put this in perspective, business executives rank just below lawyers. Among the 22 professions covered in the survey, only advertising practitioners, members of Congress, car salespeople, and lobbyists rank lower.

It’s certainly not my place or my intention to impugn the honesty and ethics of any single business leader, or any professional for that matter. But there is clearly a lot of cynicism out there these days. So if you’re not good at leading cynical people, chances are you’re not good at leading a lot of the people you’re supposed to be leading.

I like to think I know a bit about what it takes to lead cynical people because I’m one of them, by nature and by nurture. Often, business leaders are advised not to hire people like me. The conventional wisdom holds that cynics’ jaundiced world view makes us too difficult to be led. Worse, our rotten attitudes are going to infect our coworkers.

Cynics can make great employees, but only if you can allay our suspicions about your motives and reignite our idealism.

This is untrue. It’s possible that a small number of us are truly irredeemable cynics. But most of us are not. “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist,” as George Carlin, the late, great comedian (and a world-class cynic), put it. Cynics can make great employees, but only if you can allay our suspicions about your motives and reignite our idealism. To achieve that, I earnestly propose three simple guidelines.

Be honest. Don’t lie to cynics. And by lie, I mean employing any of the myriad forms of dissembling. Be scrupulously honest, because if we discover you’re not telling the truth, we will never believe you again. 

This is not to say you have to tell us everything you know or suspect. There are things you needn’t and, sometimes, shouldn’t tell us. So, tell us what you can, and if you have more information that is not appropriate or not ready to share, just say so. Truth matters more than total transparency to us.

Play fair. Cynics expect inequity, anywhere and everywhere. But if leaders confound that expectation, we will repay you with hard work and loyalty. How can you promote fair play? Don’t play us for pawns in office politics, and try to avoid throwing us under the bus to save your own skin. And strive to treat us fairly in every situation.

We know equitable doesn’t always mean “equal.” It means that we get what we deserve. But if and when cynics discover inequity, it can trigger a backlash. Don’t pay us less than a fair wage or less than a colleague who is performing equally well, for instance. Because if you do, not only will you lose us, but we may disappear at the exact moment when you need us most. Cynics don’t have any trouble burning bridges we’re never going to cross again.

Do what you say you are going to do. Twenty-five years ago, leadership expert Jim Kouzes told me, “If people don’t believe in the messenger, they won’t believe in the message.” We were talking about his newly published book Credibility, in which he and Barry Posner argued that in order to be believed, leaders must “do what we say we will do.”

This is doubly true when it comes to leading cynics. We are excellent hype detectors, and we have surprisingly long memories when it comes to the promises our leaders make to us. So, if you aren’t going to do something you say you’re going to do (or at least, go down trying in a public manner), you’re better off not making us promises in the first place. If you play us for fools once, we won’t come around again.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to write about these three guidelines than it is to live up to them. But we cynics have no trouble recognizing leaders who are making an honest effort. We also will forgive the inevitable lapses that occur when you struggle to reconcile the sometimes conflicting demands of your job. After all, we pride ourselves on having no illusions about the way the world works.

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



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