top of page

CYNIC! - why it's a career turnoff

Are you a cynic? Some people revel in being one, seeing themselves as super-rational, allowing no wool to be pulled over their eyes. Cynics, by the way, were once Greek philosophers who rejected conventional ideas about money, power, and shelter.

Instead, they favoured living simply and aligned with nature. The brain behind this lifestyle, Antisthenes, apparently lived on the streets of Athens, ate raw meat, and preached a life of poverty. Today, though, being a cynic means something very different.

If you’re a self-identified cynic, you probably pride yourself on your scepticism and ability to be wary of other people’s motives. Like Sherlock Holmes, you sniff out truths that elude the rest of us. How do you do it? Mainly by seeing the worst in people. A sort of generic “the butler did it.”

It’s a myth that being a cynic is a sign of your genius. Instead, there’s a reason people think it’s wise to be cynical. It’s a throwback to the idea of the survival of the fittest. Sadly, cynicism infects countless organisations surfacing as a prevalent belief that people are selfish, greedy, and dishonest.

The latest research suggests that being a cynic comes at a high price. Cynics earn less money over their lives and are more likely to experience depression. They are also at greater risk of heart disease than non-cynics.

If you want to succeed at work, it’s best to avoid being tainted by cynicism because others come to see you not as bright but gossipy and backstabbing. Your colleagues will see your cynicism as bringing out the worst in others and creating distrust. Not a sound culture for any enterprise. But maybe it explains why so few organisations have mastered the art of customer service.

If you’re prone to bouts of cynicism, you’re likely to be a poor performer, burn out, and liable to adopt unethical behaviour such as cheating. Cynics often act as though the best defence is a good offence. For example, a cynic tends to act disrespectfully towards friends and colleagues. Which only increases others’ disrespect for the cynic.

In his remarkable book Brave New Work, Aaron Dignam tells the story of the factory employee standing by a large, locked cage of gloves. The CEO passing by asked why he was waiting there. The worker explained that he was waiting for a slip to allow him to gain a replacement for his worn-out gloves.

Yet the cost of this man leaving his expensive machinery for half an hour was several thousand dollars, while the gloves were just a few dollars. Somebody in that company had decided not to trust the employees to take gloves when needed and put them behind bars. This was cynicism in action.

Just in case you believe this is rare, think of all those leaders who don’t trust their people and restrict, pressure and check to ensure they do the bare minimum to prevent shirking and cheating. No wonder engagement is so low in countless organisations and why employees know cynicism when they see it.

How do you avoid the cynicism trap? Wirth so much rapid change, uncertainty and complexity pervading organisations, becoming a cynic is perhaps understandable. You hear it in people’s distrust of others and low expectations of colleagues.

Microsoft has introduced deliberate anti-cynical practices to give employees space and trust. This has paid dividends, nourishing a culture of innovation and collaboration.

As an employee in your organisation, you are part of the culture. Your attitudes matter and can influence others in ways you may not realise. To counter the infection of cynicism, look for opportunities to trust others. Show you believe they want to do their best and support them in striving to do that. Not surprisingly, they, in turn, will start to put their trust in you.


J. Zki, Don’t let cynicism undermine your workplace, HBR 2022:

A.Dignan, Brave New Work, Penguin, 2019, ISDN x001MMF3E1


For more ways to succeed at work, listen to my next
Podcast! Every Monday.


Take your next steps towards success at work with these
five interactive, mobile learning courses.

bottom of page