Beware of cynicism

The word ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek word for dog, so to be cynical literally means to be dog like, in the sense of not caring, of being happy to let the world pass you by. It involves not making an emotional investment, of being detached and disengaged.

For many people cynicism is an emotional coping mechanism – if you don’t put your heart into something, you are much less likely to get hurt by it. And, without that emotional engagement, the result is likely to be negativity and defeatism. You can’t succeed at something if you don’t engage with it. But, equally, you can’t fail, which is a big part of the appeal of cynicism as a coping method – it is a protective mechanism.

Of course, you are highly unlikely to convince a cynic of this, as they will just dismiss the idea, not engage with it and, that way, be safe from it (or at least feel safe from it). Cynicism can be as a result of burnout, of emotional exhaustion – for example, as a result of work overload or being exposed to very stressful circumstances. But, we should not make the mistake of equating cynicism with burnout – many people have cynical tendencies without being even the slightest bit burnt out.

It can be helpful to think of cynicism as one extreme of a continuum, with a naïve idealism at the other extreme. In between the two is the healthy balance of scepticism. A sceptic is someone who questions, who does not take things at face value (which is what a naïve idealist would do), but who does not dismiss things as a matter of course (which, of course, is what a cynic is likely to do). A person adopting a sceptical approach avoids these two unhealthy extremes. By avoiding naïve idealism we are less open to being exploited by ruthless people who will seek to take advantage of any such naivety. And, by avoiding cynicism we avoid wallowing in negativity and the tendency to give up without trying.

Cynicism can be contagious, in the sense that just one cynical person can poison the atmosphere with negativity across a whole group of people. For example, I have come across many situations in which one person’s temporary absence can immediately contribute to a higher level of motivation and morale, while their presence normally undermines such things. We therefore have to be wary of not only any tendency towards cynicism we may have ourselves, but also the danger of being adversely affected by someone else’s cynicism.

In a sense, cynicism is a form of (negative) leadership. If we bear in mind that a key part of leadership is the ability to shape the culture in which they are operating, it is often the case that a cynic is dragging the culture down, contributing to negativity, defeatism and an unduly pessimistic outlook. Consequently, what is often required as a counterbalance to cynicism is positive leadership, the ability (and willingness) of one or more people to take the ethos or ‘mood’ in a more positive direction. This will free people up to be more motivated, more creative, more productive, more open to learning and, in all likelihood, happier.

There is no simple ‘cure’ or easy answer when it comes to cynicism, but there are things that can be done to guard against it, not least keeping the healthy balance of scepticism in mind. If in doubt, we can ask: is this a positive, constructive questioning stance that is being adopted, or does it cross the line into negative and dismissive cynicism?