I work a lot with teams that are trying to make something better – their organizations, their communities, their countries. Inevitably, early in any change process, there’s often a person at the back of the room who raises his or her hand and asks a question that’s masking a declaration of doubt. It sounds something like:

“Do you really think this is going to work after all the failed attempts of the past?”

Enter the cynic.

Cynics believe people and organizations are motivated by self-interest and altruism is a pipe dream. They believe people and organizations don’t change. For many leaders, cynics are a constant barrier and a general pain in the behind. As one client recently put it: “Every time we launch a new initiative the same people loudly recite all the reasons our efforts are misinformed, manipulative, or plain mad. They just suck all the energy out of the room.”

We are quick to label the cynics among us. We call them ”adversaries” or “obstacles” then seek to discredit their arguments, disprove their assertions, and dissect their motives. They are the “roadblocks” and we are the “good people who want progress”. For many years I myself dealt with cynics as adversaries.

Then I had a conversation with Peter Block, an insightful author and teacher who told me: cynics are just idealists who have been disappointed one too many times, so they retreat into a self-protective mode fortified with the inclination to question whether anything will work or is worthwhile. And this stance of expecting failure guarantees they will never be disappointed again. You can’t coax cynics out of their doubt. You just have to contain their influence in two ways:

1. Framing cynicism as a choice
2. Inviting cynics to participate actively even in the face of their doubts.

Now, thanks largely to Peter, when cynics forecast failure based on past disappointments I have a somewhat standard response:

“Thank you, Jack, for honestly describing your perspective about what’s happened in the past. I won’t try to talk you out of your disappointment about the past or the present. I will say this — when any of us allows past disappointments to become justifications for not trying something new we are making a choice. So, here’s an invitation to anyone who relates to Jack right now; Take your hard-won wisdom, including your doubts, concerns and suspicions– and bring those to this work. Ask hard questions and help us navigate our way around past mistakes and current obstacles.”

When I make this little speech it’s as much for the non-cynics in the room. It’s a way to inoculate them from the contagiousness of cynicism. It’s a way to tell them: just because we get disappointed we don’t need to assume a stance of negative prediction about the future. Choosing to remain open-minded fosters resilience and resourcefulness when the going gets rough.

These days I actually look forward to encountering cynics within an organization. I love helping them reawaken their inner idealist and rediscover purpose and meaning in their work. In fact, I’ve come to believe that those who present themselves as vocal cynics are the “closet idealists” among us who have the potential to become the most effective and enthusiastic change agents in the room.

Image credit: Tim Collins on Unsplash

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