Volume 38, May 2004: Cynicism

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

This is a monthly electronic magazine for anyone who wants to be a better leader, coach, facilitator, or simply, to tune up their people skills. It is a complimentary publication, devoted to the next evolution of Quality Thinking.

Publisher: © Key Associates, LLC, 2004 ISSN # 1545-8873

“A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past, he is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future.” — Sydney J. Harris

“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.” — H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

“Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth.” — Lillian Hellman, (1905-1984), The Little Foxes (1939)

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” — Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), Act III

“Cynicism is not realistic and tough. It’s unrealistic and kind of cowardly because it means you don’t have to try.” — Peggy Noonan (1950- ), in Good Housekeeping


  • What’s Hot in Leadership
  • Maintaining Yourself as a Leader
  • Frequently Asked Questions from Leaders
  • Educational Opportunities
  • Useful Websites & Newsletters
  • Articles/Publications

What’s Hot in Leadership

  • Keeping Hope Alive. Letting people know how important their work is, and therefore, how important they are.
  • Listening to whom/what you perceive as opposition, in order to learn.
  • Countering cynicism and sarcasm with an ear for the truth and an eye for the future.

Maintaining Yourself as a Leader

Pessimism is a bad habit. You encounter it in others; you experience it in yourself. So often in management, we are looking for problems we must solve, where the fault lies, what is broken and how should we fix it. Exhausted pessimists become cynics. In systems terms, cynicism is a Declining Cycle – repeatedly looking for what’s wrong. Instead of a Reinforcing Cycle – searching for the good. The cycles tend to loop in a given direction until the habit becomes unconscious. It’s the old cup-half-full vs. half-empty. We get stuck in viewing everything with the lens of what’s wrong, not what’s right. Notice the right. What are we doing well that we can do more of, to delight customers and employees? Notice someone doing something right and applaud it. Make deposits rather than withdrawals in people’s emotional bank accounts (S. Covey).

Frequently Asked Questions

“I am inundated with ‘cynicism.’ It’s getting to me, and I find myself talking the same way. What to do?”
Synonyms for cynicism: sarcasm, suspicion, disparagement, skepticism, distrust, doubt, scorn. Cynicism is the offspring of “dashed hopes.” At one time, there was a dream and it crumbled. There is a second component to cynicism: self-efficacy or “the ability to cause something to happen.” Cynics have lost their sense of power to change things, thus perceive a helplessness that goes along with the hopelessness. The leader’s challenge is to keep hope alive or at least try to rekindle it. Leaders keep hope alive when they set high standards and believe in people’s capability to achieve them. They give reinforcing feedback and publicly recognize accomplishments. They are there to celebrate successes and failures. They train, support, and coach people to exceed theircapabilities. They lead with inclusiveness. And they model the way – providing the example of optimism and hope, painting word pictures of a future success together. Read Kouzes and Posner’s “Encouraging the Heart” (2003).
“When I introduce a new idea, I frequently get a sarcastic remark about how it won’t work? How do I reply?”
First of all, inventory how many of these remarks you have heard in your culture:
  • We will need to hire more staff.
  • We have too many projects now.
  • That’s not our problem.
  • Here we go again.
  • It’ll mean more work.
  • Who thought that one up?.
  • Yes, but …
  • It’s too late.
  • It’s not in the budget.
  • Our system isn’t set up to do it that way.
  • It’s too expensive to do it that way .
  • Are you kidding?.
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • We’ve always done it this way.
  • Don’t go there.
  • They won’t let us.
  • The staff won’t go for it.
  • Administration won’t go for it.
  • It won’t work here.

These are known as “Idea Killers.” Push back.

  • Really, tell me more …
  • Awful lot of work, but it might be worth it.
  • Let’s stay with this for a moment. There’s time to be realistic later.
  • Maybe it’s time to try … Let’s experiment.
  • Who are they?
  • What’s a budget for?
  • We’ll create it the way we want it.
“There is a grain of truth to what the cynics are saying. Need I acknowledge this?”
Sadly, organizations have disempowered, disillusioned and disappointed people. Management has been seen acting in its own self-interests. Unfair practices, untruths, and unkept promises have corroded trust. Maybe cynics are realists and serve as your reality check. Don’t duck it, clean it up.
  • Assume responsibility for the result and apologize.
  • Talk straight. Reveal the truth (it always comes out anyway).
  • Make a promise about your future actions, and keep the agreement.
  • Re-commit to your relationship and your partnership.
  • Continue to engage in fair practices.
  • Link strongly to the values and vision of the organization.


Take the cynicism test: The Official Cynic’s Self-Test

The home page for cynicism.

Scholarly treatment of cynicism in business: Overview of Cynicism in Business Organizations.

Useful Websites & Newsletters

Cynicism has been cited as a potential couse of heart disease. Check yourself: Is Your Heart at Risk?

Cartoons on cynicism: Cynicism Cartoons and Comics<



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