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The antidote to cynicism

Mary Gentile
Mary C. Gentile, PhD is author of Giving Voice To Values: How To Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right and Senior Research Scholar for Curriculum & Case development at Babson College.

Hardly a day goes by that we don't read about another corporate or government calamity - whether it's outright corruption or self-serving ethical neglect. And it's no wonder consumers, investors, potential employees and voters may be feeling a kind of angry despair when it comes to the fabric of institutions that support our lives. The press, the blogosphere and the water cooler all reflect back this unhappy cocktail of emotions every day.

But what about the leaders out there who would like to build, maintain and lead ethical organizations? What about those leaders who not only see their own professional roles tarnished, painted with the same brush as so many others who have made it to the front pages for ignominious reasons, but who also begin to wonder how to counter the cynicism in their team?

It's true, of course, that constant bombardment with negative stories can serve to discourage those who might otherwise be inclined to voice and enact their values in the workplace. But there are tools and strategies available to the leader who wishes to counteract this destructive cycle.

Ask a different question.
The first and arguably the most important lesson for leaders is to ask a different question. That is, instead of asking whether we can enact our values in a particular situation, the committed leader can ask how we can enact our organizational and personal values. This simple shift transforms the conversation from one of fearfulness and constraint to one of innovation and creative thinking. The values discussion is transferred from the realm of "thou shalt not" to the realm of "can do" thinking. Leaders can unleash the positive energy of their employees if they are willing to ask these big questions, and particularly if they are willing to recognize that they don't necessarily need to know the answers before they ask.

Define a bigger purpose.
Next, leaders can counter cynicism by offering a purpose and direction that engages their organization's emotional commitment. The way we frame a challenge can go a long way toward overcoming it. For example, if employees know the purpose of their efforts is to improve customers' lives through the development of effective products and services, they are less likely to lose sight of safety and quality concerns. Leaders have a powerful podium and bullhorn for getting their message out. The choice to focus that message on short-term quarterly share price or on long-term organizational sustainability is a defining decision.

Think out loud.
One of the most powerful tools leaders have is the willingness to think and learn, out loud, in front of their teams. Sharing our doubts, as well as the way we reasoned through them, can empower our reports to share their own questions and ensures that no important concern is left unsaid because of a fear of reprisal or sense of futility.

Use jujitsu reversals.
Sometimes the very act of anticipating the objections and obstacles we might face when voicing our values provides us with the ammunition we need to respond to them. Disheartening stories like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and the Goldman Sachs scandal are not only potential sources of cynicism; they can also be turned around to provide "ammunition" or persuasive examples you can use to influence colleagues or bosses.

That is, we can point out the very real, and often very public, costs of misbehavior. This is not just an empty concern. We live in a world where social media and a watchdog press can make mistakes very public, very quickly. And the level of attention is not always calibrated to the size of the infraction. Granted the scale of the BP disaster is seemingly incalculable, but New York's Governor Patterson is facing public scrutiny over $400 worth of baseball tickets, too.

If we not only anticipate the kinds of challenges we might face in our work lives but actually pre-script our responses and then practice them out loud in front of our peers, we'll be more likely to voice our values when we do encounter ethical conflicts and more likely to be effective when we do.

Start now.
The very act of asking questions and voicing our values within our organizations begins the process of encouraging others to also ask such questions and consider better ways of operating.

The trick is to model honest conversation. We're not simply trying to root out the "bad apples." This is about building a better barrel. We need to enable an open, constructive dialogue where values are always an appropriate subject of discussion and where differences of opinion don't negate the possibility, the necessity of finding shared ground.

Once this conversation is engaged, we begin to see the transformation. It's like what happens when the lifelong smoker finally quits. Even after years of addiction, the lungs begin to clear.

By Mary Gentile

 |  September 8, 2010; 12:54 PM ET |  Category:  Culture , Decision-making , Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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It's sad that we even have to have this conversation. A return to valuing ethics should be a priority in all aspects of our lives- not just for our business leaders. There is a severe lack of ethics everywhere I look these days.

Posted by: Gina17 | September 21, 2010 4:29 PM

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