Why cynicism is bad for you

02 December 2011 -


A suspicious attitude towards the motivations of people you do business with is not the ideal mindsets for leadership success, writes Adi Gaskell

Do you trust someone until they prove that you shouldn’t, or do you have a natural cynicism until someone proves they are trust worthy?

That basic question frames much of how we conduct our lives, both personal and professional. Missing out on opportunities due to a lack of trust often don’t register because we don’t miss what we don’t know. Being betrayed however is personal and raw, and this tends to tip us towards being cynical rather than trusting.

Obviously an overly cynical outlook on life hinders our professional life in many ways, especially in the modern workplace where open communication and frequent knowledge sharing are expected to be the norm.

An interesting study by Chia-Jung Tsay from Harvard Business School set out to shed some light on how cynicism forms in the workplace. The study identified various things that often trigger a cynical outlook:

1. Naivety


People new to negotiating more often believe that the process is always competitive and are therefore likely to act cynically towards their “opponent”.

2. Knowledge of your foe

If you’re negotiating with a well-known expert in their field then you are more likely to be suspicious of their offers.

3. Pick your friends wisely

They found that if you have someone on your team who has a shady reputation, that reputation will be applied to the whole team.

4. Is information freely available?

If those in power have access to information that the other side don’t then there is an expectation that they will misuse that “power”.

The research highlighted several examples of offers being rejected that would have been in their best interest, but alas cynicism gets in the way of common sense.

They warn us that the consequence is that “cynicism regarding others’ motivations may become a self-fulfilling prophecy that leaves both sides worse off than would otherwise be the case.”

However the study concluded with some advice on how to avoid the cynicism trap:

1. Do unto others

If you act with integrity yourself it increases the likelihood that the other party will too.

2. Open up information

Provide all parties with access to the information required.

3. Familiarity breeds understanding

If you deal with each other frequently then it breeds understanding and breaks down cynicism.

4. Walk a mile in their shoes

Understand the other participants motivations and perspectives to cultivate win-win situations

Adi Gaskell is a social media expert and blogger

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