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Thomas S. Bateman

Thomas S. Bateman

Thomas S. Bateman is the Bank of America Professor in the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia.

Two antitodes to cynicism

Gut instinct, the rise of the Tea Party, and recent opinion polls all converge on the fact that cynicism toward our leaders and institutions is running rampant. This is not new; it's a long-term trend since the 1960s. Regardless of past trends, though, today's cynicism levels are extremely high. A new Pew poll describes a "perfect storm" of nasty circumstances and events, and reveals the lowest trust in government in 50 years.

Some individuals are predisposed to be cynical. We all know some, and we see others in the news. But leadership is crucial in either raising or lowering cynicism levels. Some Tea Party activists, for example, are probably life-long cynics, but many are mobilized by what they see happening around and "to" them (the financial crisis, the deficit, taxes, the Goldman Sachs charges filed by the SEC). Some are influenced further by what they hear others saying, whether true or not.

Cynicism can be defined in many ways, but it is fundamentally an attitude of frustration and distrust toward a particular institution (government, employers, big banks) or leader. The negative thoughts can easily translate into antagonistic behaviors. Sometimes those behaviors are extreme and counterproductive. But sometimes they are constructive, representing the kinds of thinking engaged citizens should do in order for democracy to flourish.

Thus the news about cynicism isn't all bad. Cynicism can be positive force for resisting organizational or societal changes that deserve to be resisted. At a more individual level, an employee's cynicism toward a leader can mean he or she is more likely to refuse to engage in an unethical act requested by the leader. But cynicism improperly channeled can lead to overreaction, including violence or withdrawal, and poor performance, ultimately harming the cynical individual as well as his or her organization.

Most research about cynicism has been conducted with employees in the workplace. For example, employees become more cynical toward corporate leaders when they see top management implement what they believe are unfair or badly managed layoffs.This is particularly true when employees see top leaders as overcompensated or inept.

Broadly speaking, employees are responding to two key attributes in their leaders: The presence or lack of perceived trustworthiness and competence. Cynicism can result when leaders show they are untrustworthy, whether because of committing unethical acts, appearing self-serving or engaging in guarded or dishonest communications. People see leaders as trustworthy when they communicate and behave consistently, value and protect employees, communicate openly and consult others in decision making, and embody the organization's mission.

People see incompetence, and become cynical, when their leaders lack relevant knowledge, fail to take action, create confusion, appear ego-driven, fail to appreciate employees, and exhibit poor communication skills. In contrast, they see competence when leaders emphasize both performance outcomes and employee welfare, have a focus on the future, are seen as "go-getters", and are effective communicators.

Ultimately, leaders show competence when they deliver results that matter to people: problems solved and opportunities realized. Until those results are in, people see competent leaders choosing the most important issues to work on, engaging personally and with others in thoughtful problem-solving processes, and pursuing constructive goals via sound strategies.

I often advise leaders to think about what reputation they want to have. We all want a "good" reputation, but it's better to be more specific. What should a leader want people to think and say about her? There's a lot to be said for having a reputation of being both competent and trustworthy, by virtue of having integrity and dealing fairly with others.

These dimensions of leadership and personal reputation are completely actionable, whether in the private or public sector. Not only are they good for any leader's reputation; they also go a long way toward easing the widespread problem of cynical "followers" -- whether employees or voters.

By Thomas S. Bateman

 |  May 11, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"(E)mployees become more cynical toward corporate leaders when they see top management implement what they believe are unfair or badly managed layoffs. This is particularly true when employees see top leaders as overcompensated or inept."
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So true - I used to work for a utility, a in a field requiring specialized knowledge. In came consultants who were paid to "squeeze the fat" from the business. Their checklist included computerizing as much as possible such that a "temp" could sit all day entering data without knowing what it represented. Employees were considered interchangeable and expendable - the more seniority you had, the more expensive you were and the more expendable you became; expect for senior management who were brought in from outside the industry at inflated salaries for unexplained reasons. Their philosophy was basically "flog the peasants harder and they'll dig up more potatoes". Quarterly results for the big investors was essential for their bonuses - everything else, including customer and employee satisfaction, was secondary.

You may think I exaggerate - no, I do not. It will take a big business culture shift toward long-term results and business values and ethics before Americas’ situation improves.

Posted by: shadowmagician | May 11, 2010 7:03 PM
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