According to one dictionary the essence of a cynic is that or she is “bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic.” Indeed there is likely no single employee personality trait more corrosive to a positive working environment than cynicism.
In our continuing search for an ideal employee it no doubt follows that every general manager, corporate executive and HR director already get that cynicism is poison.
Even in small doses, once exposed to unsuspecting fellow employees or guests, the cynic is like a fine mist of carbon dioxide: in the air, it’s virtually unseen but we are nevertheless keenly aware of its effect as oxygen (a positive force) is involuntarily sucked from us, and our otherwise positive, ambitious, guest-focused natures are, even if only momentarily, subjected to an insidious attack of self-doubt. Once is bad enough: repeated contact with cynics can prove debilitating — to an entire organization.
Where does all this venom originate? Is there any one person in a company responsible for its growth? Academicians point to chronic job dissatisfaction as a root cause, but what is the catalyst?
Leaders, First Heal Thyself
Cynicism surely can arise from an employee’s continually unmet needs; for example, in seeing the obvious and wondering why no higher-ups notice — or, if they notice, why nothing gets done. Cynicism can also emerge from distrust, a feeling that words — promises — are often at odds with the results.
More than one expert has suggested that leaders can generate not just goodwill but an atmosphere of trust by first examining their own behavior. Cornell University School of Hotel Administration associate professor Tony Simons is the author of The Integrity Dividend: Leading by the Power of Your Word. His book is a road map for managers who want to spread trust.
Simons shows that studies have yielded firm correlation between management’s integrity and the trust it engenders from employees. Integrity and profitability are linked, he says. Calling integrity “the single strongest controllable performance factor a hotel has” Simons offers valuable suggestions for our industry’s leaders on heading off cynicism among employees. Here are a few:
- Get into the habit of recording your commitments immediately so that you don’t forget them.
- Promise less but do it more often.
- Pick only a few key values, repeat them over and over, prioritize them, talk about where they fit into the big picture, and celebrate the victories on those values—consistently.
- Once you adopt an idea, commit to it. Don’t abandon it a year later.
- Balance change with continuity.
- Honor your commitments to yourself. This will strengthen your sense of personal integrity, which will increase your ability to live by your word in general—and increase your personal charisma.
Unions, lawyers and dissident employees are often criticized for fomenting workplace crises and then exploiting employee cynicism by blaming management for its origin. Which comes first, we have to wonder? The crises or the employee cynicism? How does cynicism get a toehold, much less flourish, if employees are unified behind a hospitality company’s leadership?
Through his pointers on how to increase trust in management through improved management integrity, Tony Simons illustrates how unwary bosses create cynics. Management consultant Chris McChesney concurs, saying that leaders “tend to be their own worst enemy, particularly the ambitious, creative ones.” Like Tony Simons, McChesney calls out leaders who try to take on too much, who “always have more good ideas than the capacity to execute”. The constant flow of ideas from the boss can create an “execution gap”, says McChesney. That gap, where ideas die or are picked up again and again, never to be realized, can itself be a root cause of employee cynicism.
Banishing the Cynics
Simons and McChesney provide a recurring theme: in order to banish cynicism we should all talk less and should focus instead on actions. If they are right, what kind of actions should we take? Here’s a short list:
- Pare down our annual list of strategic goals to the few that are the essence of our “wheelhouse”, those that are the core of what we do best, what sets our brand apart.
- Focus on successes where every employee can become involved, where each plays a role in guest satisfaction.
- Focus on the truth, even when it isn’t pleasant.
- Concentrate energy on developing a leadership team who speak with one voice, whose words are trusted because they produce results.
- Inspire leaders to care for others, to eschew ruthless behavior while still pursuing excellence, and teaching their people how to do the same.
- Remember: cynicism thrives where leadership stalls.