Don't Be Cynical: It's a Great Place to Work If your life seems like a Dilbert cartoon, you may be experiencing a cynical work environment. Workplace consultant Ben Dattner offers advice for breaking a cycle of cynicism on the job.
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Don't Be Cynical: It's a Great Place to Work

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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On Wednesdays, we focus on the workplace. And today, we answer questions about your job with the help from NPR's workplace consultant, Ben Dattner. Ben, good morning once again.

BEN DATTNER: Good to be here.

INSKEEP: Got a letter here from Manuel Jimenez Monteone(ph) in Rocklin, California. It reads as follows: As a team leader, what is the best way to break a vicious cycle of cynicism on the team? What do you think?

DATTNER: The first thing is to not be cynical yourself. If you demonstrate cynicism, you're likely to feed into your team's cynicism. You should also not have there be a gap between what you say you're going to do and what you do. A gap between rhetoric and reality is really a big cause of cynicism in the workplace.

INSKEEP: Can you think of an example from your own consulting where you've come into an organization and cynicism seems to be a problem?

DATTNER: Well, you always know based on the humor in the organization what people are cynical about. And one thing is 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.

INSKEEP: We build trust everyday. I get it. Although you wonder if cynicism might be appropriate in certain companies. If you're working for General Motors right now and things look pretty grim, maybe a little bit of cynicism is just realism. What's a good approach?

DATTNER: One of my favorite examples of somebody setting a bar for diminishing cynicism is the police chief in Oshkosh, Wisconsin a few weeks ago, who gave himself a ticket for an unsafe lane change. How could you be a cynical motorist in that town?

I think a lot of heroic narratives in a lot of movies, the hero or heroine comes in, there's a class or a team and they're cynical, and the hero or heroine's task is to turn around their cynicism.

INSKEEP: You know, we're assuming cynicism is a problem. Is it?

DATTNER: To the extent the people are demotivated and disloyal and looking for other jobs, it can be a problem. But to the extent that it's really about truth speaking to power, it can be helpful.

INSKEEP: Not a problem for Scott Adams, the Dilbert creator, I suppose. Made a comic strip out of it.

DATTNER: That's right. One of my favorites is they're talking about whether in fact it's true that people are our most valuable asset, and they look into it and it turns out the people are actually the ninth most valued asset after carbon paper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: You never know when you might need a sheet of that old carbon paper.

DATTNER: I mean, they're cynicism about motivational speakers, and that's an occupational hazard. In my line of work, people look at some of the motivational speakers out there and think that that's what consultants are.

INSKEEP: Well, that does make me wonder, though. I think when a consultant comes into a company, people probably regard you with a fair amount of cynicism.

Mr. DATTNER: I was doing a series of focus groups at a large company, and what people said there is they said we've made hundreds and thousands of recommendations. And senior management not only hasn't taken any of them, but they have anything gotten back to us. And they beseeched me. They said, please, when you present your report, tell them to get back to us. Even if the answer is we've carefully considered all of your recommendations and we're not going to do any of it, at least just tell us that. Saying that would represent some progress for this organization.

INSKEEP: Ben Dattner is an industrial and organizational psychologist. You can get more of his advice on cynicism at

Ben, thanks very much.

DATTNER: Thank you.

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