Don't Be Cynical: It's a Great Place to Work

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Finding yourself in a sticky situation at the office, and don't know what to do about it? Morning Edition's workplace consultant, Ben Dattner, will answer selected questions on the air or at NPR.org.

If your life seems like a Dilbert cartoon, you may be experiencing a cynical work environment. Ben Dattner, Morning Edition's workplace consultant, offers some advice for breaking a vicious cycle of cynicism on the job.

"The first thing is to not be cynical yourself," says Dattner, an organizational psychologist. As a team leader, "if you demonstrate cynicism, you're likely to feed into your team's cynicism."

It's easy to tell whether cynicism is prevalent in the workplace, he says.

"You always know based on the humor in the organization what people are cynical about," Dattner tells Steve Inskeep. "And if an organization has a slogan, like 'We build trust every day,' and people repeat that in an ironic, cynical way, that's a signal that there's something wrong."

But is cynicism really so bad?

"To the extent that people are demotivated and disloyal and looking for other jobs, it can be a problem," Dattner says.

Below, Dattner offers more tips for team leaders to combat cynicism.

Do your homework. Learn about the historical and contextual reasons why the members of your team are cynical in the first place. It's hard to combat cynicism if you don't understand where it comes from and why it has grown.

Encourage members of your team to speak up. One of the major causes of cynicism is when people feel like there is a gap between rhetoric and reality and when they don't feel like they have an opportunity to share their concerns or to have their concerns addressed.

Watch what you say. Don't convey cynicism or pessimism yourself. Leaders of teams can have a strong positive or negative influence on team morale.

Look ahead. Try to paint a picture of what the future might look like if the team's cynicism and pessimism continue. Then, describe a brighter future that could result if everyone pulls together and tries to make things better.

Discourage complaining and venting.. Ask team members to present potential solutions to problems.

Communicate clearly. Tell them that, regardless of how frustrating things might be, you are confident and optimistic that if everyone works together the team can overcome its challenges.

Build confidence. Give the team progressively more challenging things to work on together, in order to build the team's confidence and sense that it can control its own destiny.

'Leading at the Edge.' A great book about principles that leaders at all levels can use to successfully guide teams through even the most trying circumstances is Leading at the Edge by Dennis Perkins, et. al., about Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic journey.

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