Attention FAE Customers:
Please be aware that NASBA credits are awarded based on whether the events are webcast or in-person, as well as on the number of CPE credits.
Please check the event registration page to see if NASBA credits are being awarded for the programs you select.

Want to save this page for later?

NextGen Magazine


Stanford University Psychologist: Cynicism at Work Can Be Harmful

Published Date:
Jun 28, 2024

iStock-668986708 Angry Woman Documents Paper Confused

Being a cynic at work can be bad for one’s career, a Stanford University psychologist told The Wall Street Journal.

Associate Professor Jamil Zaki, the principal investigator of the University’s Social Neuroscience Laboratory, researches empathy and compassion. He has written a book, “Hope for Cynics,” that explores the rise of the belief that other people are selfish, greedy and dishonest.

People practice what Zaki calls “pre-disappointment,” always assuming that others will let them down, after being betrayed once. But that can damage careers and hurt mental and physical health in the long run. “By never trusting, cynics never lose,” he wrote. “They also never win.”

Around the middle of the 20th century, Americans enjoyed good benefits and job security, with CEOs not making exponentially more than a worker’s pay. Zaki said that people repaid their companies’ loyalty with commitment, “as part of an unspoken covenant.”

No more. With diminished benefits and people working as contractors or freelancers–or isolation at home—there is less interaction.

Zaki told the Journal that studies showed cynics’ earnings and leadership potential level off with time. To do good work and attain success, workers have to build alliances and share information—that is to say, trust someone.

He added that cynics are prone to poor health, from depression to heart disease. At an organizational level, cynicism can lead to pervasive backstabbing, higher turnover and even corporate corruption.

Cynicism is also a self-fulfilling prophecy, he said. For example, a manager who micromanages his team, eroding what trust there may be, may cause them to become the very slackers that the micromanager believed that they were all along. “Cynics tell a story full of villains and end up living in it,” Zaki wrote.

When people challenge their own assumptions, they are often pleasantly surprised, Zaki said, because other people often rise to the occasion when someone lets them. He suggested that workers engage in “positive gossip,” by speaking highly of others. He advocates taking a leap of faith in someone, and doing it obviously.

Rejecting cynicism doesn’t mean that managers can’t hold workers to high standards, Zaki said. But managers shouldn't pit them against each other with practices such as rankings, which discourage collaboration as workers vie to outrank one another.

He also cautioned against being blindly optimistic. If managers aren't providing employees any reason to have faith in them, then workers shouldn't have faith in them. Zaki advised finding another group to trust, or banding together to reduce stress in the workplace or to improve its conditions.

“We often underestimate how much influence we have,” he said. “Own that power.”