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How do you deal with cynics and cynicism?

When we seek real change, we will face real opposition; cynicism is a natural part of any change. How do we address it? To create a divide between ourselves and those who are unsure about this way forward - a 'them and us' scenario if you will - is counterproductive. We must instead recognise that we are all cynics to greater or lesser degree. And, instead of trying to persuade and cajole those who feel particularly strongly about it, we should empathise and invite them to be part of the solution we seek, but on their terms.

Life is awash with unfulfilled promises; a reality particularly true in organisational change. We have all seen “certainties” flounder, change programs come and go, and corporate values reflect none of their real meaning. Cynicism is an understandable response to all these failed attempts to solve the inherent problems facing organisations. It is this validity that gives cynicism such power - it speaks for and from all of us.

When faced with cynicism the following actions will help to fruitfully, authentically and honestly address real concerns:

  • Acknowledge fears and reasons for hesitation - these fears and beliefs are real and valid.
  • Share your fears - there is cynicism in all of us and by sharing our vulnerability, we take back the power that cynicism wields.
  • Don’t make promises of certainty - we will most likely not be able to live up to them despite our best intentions, and broken promises erode trust.
  • Give them a choice, but don’t force it - you cannot rely on forced change or persuasion. The most authentic change has to come from the individual’s own decision to choose it. Give those with concerns the chance to choose whether or not to pursue this pathway. This ensures they shoulder the consequences of their decision. Our role is not to convince them but to make the point we believe this future is worth pursuing (see: "Why change now?" and "Why is the status quo not up to the 21st Century Challenge?")
  • Recognise that change is about innovation and that those who choose this are opting for adventure over security; another reason not to make promises (see: "What price must we pay for our freedom?")
  • There is a wealth of data that speaks to the power of thinking more purposefully (see: "What data?"). But real change doesn't come neatly packaged with statistical certainty to back it up because every context is unique. You will have particular challenges - and opportunities - that the data and case studies cannot solve for you. Change is always pioneering to a degree. The degree of uncertainty you are willing to carry demonstrates how pioneering you are: how much the change or an early mover advantage really matters to you. But we certainly know enough: we are aware that things can’t stay as they are, and there are plenty of stories of people having taken strong steps forward (see: "Why should I believe that a new way of working will succeed?")
  • Remind them of the joy of exploration and the excitement, creativity and purpose this brings to the human spirit. It will be fun!

Directly discussing and acknowledging cynicism as part of the process stops it becoming a blockage. It’s also worth remembering that we don’t need to eradicate cynicism to move forward - we only need about 25% of a group to create sufficient momentum.

Picture any historic turning point: JFK’s intention to put a man on the moon for example. He knew America didn’t even have the technology needed to fulfil the mission. It would have to be invented. So he gave America a choice. He suggested a path worth pursuing.

And so is a reimagined organisation.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

John F. Kennedy

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  1. Georgie Wiles

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