The secret to dealing with cynics at work

You’re a mean one, Mr. Cynic.
You’re a mean one, Mr. Cynic.
Image: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
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In a management training that my company sent me to a few years back, I was introduced to a new concept: “cynical terrorists.” This category was meant to describe the kind of person who assumes the worst of everyone, shoots down every new idea, and generally drenches their environment in negativity with the volatile energy of a broken sprinkler system.

Cynical terrorists, our coach explained, are highly engaged at their workplace, but in a destructive way. This makes them very powerful and very scary. I picture the Joker in a J. Crew button-down shirt, sowing chaos for the hell of it.

For reasons outside my control, I didn’t complete the training, so I never did find out how to channel my inner Batman in the face of a cynical colleague. But a new paper on the vicious cycle of cynicism, published in the American Psychological Association, helped me understand what makes cynics tick—and what to do the next time I find myself working with one.

The relationship between cynicism and disrespect

Researchers Olga Stavrova, Daniel Ehlebracht, and Kathleen Vohs conducted six studies to find out why people become cynics in the first place. They write of a vicious cycle in which “cynicism and disrespect fuel each other.”

When people feel disrespected by others—in a work context, this might happen when someone’s boss reneges on a promised promotion, or a colleague talks over them in every meeting—they understandably begin to take a darker view of humanity. The only way to get ahead in this place is to be selfish and sneaky, the budding cynic—let’s call him Lester—thinks. It’s every Lester for himself.

Armed with this epiphany, Lester starts taking all the credit for a project that his teammates actually contributed to and picking fights with his coworkers. As the paper’s authors point out, research shows that cynics are more likely to be conflict-prone and short-tempered, and less likely to offer support to others. These are not qualities that the average person finds endearing.

Now Lester’s colleagues have a reason to actively dislike him, and so Lester starts experiencing more instances of disrespect. His colleagues go out to lunch together and neglect to invite him along. His boss, hearing complaints about Lester’s behavior, stops recommending him for high-profile assignments. Now Lester has more evidence to support his cynical worldview. People here are so cliquish and backstabbing, he tells his reflection in the mirror. So he stops saying hello to his colleagues in the hallways and starts badmouthing his boss to the higher-ups. Things keep spiraling from there.

Cynicism, the study suggests, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The nitty gritty

The researchers identified this pattern over the course of six studies, including one that found a significant association between feeling cynical about the world and feeling disrespected by others in a survey of more than 53,000 people across 29 European countries.

Another used data from a survey of nearly 20,000 Americans ages 50 and up to test people’s beliefs over a four-year period. Sure enough, they write, “the more people felt that they had been the target of disrespect, the more cynical they were four years later. In parallel, the more cynical people were at baseline, the more often they reported being the victim of disrespect four years on.” And in an experiment that asked participants to keep a daily diary, the researchers found that “cynical people, compared with less cynical people, are both targets and perpetrators of disrespectful treatment.”

The authors note that there are limitations to these studies. For one thing, they relied on participants to self-report instances when they treated others disrespectfully—and people aren’t always the best judges of their own behavior.

On a more philosophical and psychological level, it’s up for debate whether experiencing a lack of respect is the same thing as experiencing disrespect. Perhaps there’s some more neutral middle ground between the two.

Breaking the cynical cycle

The study’s main focus is on how people become cynical, not how to turn the Lesters of the world into a bunch of “Kumbaya”-strumming cuddlebugs. But in laying out the root causes of cynicism, the authors point to possibilities that can help us navigate the cynical terrorists that we encounter at work and in other areas of our lives.

One option, of course, is to simply steer clear of the cynics. But that’s not always possible: If you’re Lester’s manager, teammate, or direct report, working with a cynic may be part of your job description. And while it’s true that just one toxic employee can have enormous ripple effects across a whole company, the behavior of the cynical person in question may not rise to a level that warrants firing.

So what to do? The authors suggest that one way to break the cycle of cynicism and disrespect may be to help people feel more empowered. After all, if feeling disrespected fuels cynical views, it stands to reason that feeling respectable may put Lester on a path toward adopting a more generous attitude toward his colleagues and the world at large.

A 2018 study by Stavrova and Ehlebracht, published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, suggests that higher education acts as an antidote against cynical views—even among people who have good reason to be wary of the world after experiencing tough childhoods. This is because education helps people feel more confident about their ability to succeed in life—both by virtue of the status and power that degrees confer, and because education itself helps people gain knowledge and perspective.

In the workplace, this means that giving cynics opportunities for growth can prompt them to adjust their attitudes. This may seem counterintuitive: Why should Lester be rewarded for his bad behavior? But the point isn’t to reinforce Lester’s rudeness; the goal is to show faith in his ability to be a better version of himself.

To that end, Lester’s boss should probably talk to him about how his behavior is impacting his colleagues. But the boss should also ask more about his professional goals. Perhaps he could suggest a conference the company could pay for him to attend, or a new project that he could head up. Lester’s colleagues could try asking him for advice to help solve a tricky problem—even if he’s normally the last person they’d think to ask.

An instant turnaround would be unlikely. But inroads can be made over time. That’s good news not just for the people who work with Lester, but for Lester himself.

Not only do cynics suffer from worse physical and mental health; a 2016 study from Stavrova and Ehlebracht found that cynics tend to make less money, too. “They are likely to suspect mean motives behind other people’s behavior, might be less likely to join collaborative efforts, and avoid asking for help in case of need, which may eventually undermine their economic success,” the authors write. The only exception was for cynical people in countries with high rates of violence and little social support, whose negative views were more reasonable.

If you recognize some cynical tendencies within yourself, you might also keep an eye out for ways to empower yourself within your job. After all, the lesson is clear: Cynicism just doesn’t pay.