Many people use sarcasm to keep their distance from the numerous everyday tasks. Sarcasm can be seen as a special form of humour that generally does not have a negative effect on the commitment of employees. The situation is completely different with cynical employees. They reject (company) norms and make fun of them. Cynicism is always hurtful, clouds the mood in the team and undermines the dynamics of development. Cynicism ultimately affects everyone. Try to identify cynicism early in order to decisively counter it and avoid disintegration of your team.
The newly appointed project manager Hanna has packed the project goals and their underlying company goals into a simple, comprehensible story (see also the core task TELL in the T.I.G.E.R.-Method@). She is aware that her story only provides movement but also needs direction. Therefore, she sits down with all project members and sketches out corporate and individual perspectives, which may result from during and after the project. By stressing similarities of perspectives, she fosters buy-in and secures herself a “trust account” – however, not with her expert Nic. The expert not only denies the company’s foresight but also describes the project as “occupational therapy for those up there”. Furthermore he believes that it is suicidal to entrust this project management to someone who hardly has the necessary skills. But this has always been the case: Competent people have never made their way up in this company. The courtiers did. Hanna is so offended by the remarks that she can’t even say a single word. Since Nic will only be responsible for a rather small side stage within the project, Hanna concentrates on everyone else and doesn’t let Nic distract her any further. Only it comes as it has to: When the project contents have to be implemented and enforced, one or two mistakes happen. Most of them can be traced back to wrong assumptions in the planning phase. That’s why Nic gets going, because his original reservations are all confirmed. With his now “officially correct”, cynical remarks, he unsettles the team, undermines Hanna’s authority and uses the general disorientation to demonstrate his assumptions, his power and his competence - the project implementation is about to fail, the employees no longer know who to follow.
No matter how Hanna’s project eventually ends, the roots of the issues lie in the initial phase. Again and again I hear clients sing the same canon: “From the very beginning I felt that this relationship was becoming difficult, unpleasant. But I didn’t want to listen to my inner voice. And now I had to bring up a lot of energy just to find myself back in the same starting position.”
So what can you do?
First of all: You can’t and shouldn’t teach cynics a better lesson. You have no chance. The fight that cynics fight with themselves and their environment is not yours. You alone are responsible for your team’s performance and that employees can flourish. Generally, cynics poison your wells. So defend yourself. However, always grant people a second chance: From my point of view, there is only one way for non-psychologists to deal effectively with cynics: A conversation about the company’s past. Cynics are not born as such, they are often the product of the very system they attack. Listen carefully. Do you notice hurt feelings? Which ones? Which of them can be healed/repaired? Who do you need to overcome the situation? And then move on as quickly as you can and offer the cynics what you possibly can. Don’t negotiate. And then you execute track 1 or 2.
Track 1: The satellite approach
The core satellite approach is often chosen for portfolio management. Here, around 80% of the assets are allocated to a specific core investment and the remainder to complementary investment vehicles. The aim is to diversify the risk and thus protect the portfolio from fluctuations in value. The vernacular has known this strategy for a long time: “Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket”.
Step 1: You can proceed in the same way if you have identified a cynic - keep him/her at a distance. Do not include him/her in processes or meetings where he can harm you and your core team. Position him/her as a satellite. Reduce and control the depth and frequency of interaction with the core team. This is not a conscious disintegration but rather a conscious partial integration.
Step 2: Focus on what you need. Formulate a clear, short mandate to the cynic and also a clear expectation of behaviour (see my journal article “The Leather Medal”). Record both in writing. Do not engage in discussions. It is not worth it.
Step 3: If you do not receive what has been agreed, consider possible reasons. What can you do or influence, to help the cynic succeed? Can you help professionally or humanly, can you use personal relationships or can you influence the conditions, then do it. If that doesn’t help, escalate the situation: a) involve your superiors and/or b) let go of the cynic, just as an investor separates his assets from a satellite.
Please note that the three steps above are designed to create opportunities for cooperation: For you, for the team and for the cynic. I have seen parties that have come to terms with this approach very well and have been able to establish a minimal, constructive collaboration. Your expectations of a team and your personal level of tolerance limit the possible outcome.
Track 2: Silent acceptance
I stumbled across this term many years ago during my studies in business administration. Without getting too close to lawyers, I describe the silent acceptance as follows: Certain facts in the context of a trade (purchase, financing, etc.) do not have to be explicitly approved or approved by the other party, but apply automatically after a period of time. They then have been accepted silently or indirectly. In this way, your health insurance communicates rising premiums: You receive a new policy and if you do not want to accept it, you must take action: resign and look for a new insurance company. If you do not take action within a certain period, the new policy will be considered accepted (silently, indirectly).
In the project team: Launch a project with a kick-off and photograph all employees. Put the picture in the project newsletter or use it for another medium with which you want to inform various parties. If you can’t use a photo (because you don’t have one or because your employees don’t want one), add a list of all your employees to the newsletter with their names and the respective assignment in the project.
In the line team: Give your cynics tasks that explicitly support the team. If these orders are completed constructively, then you have achieved enough “integration”. Make sure that team feedback is given to the cynics. Avoid being particularly nice or try to teach the cynics. Just provide facts. If, on the other hand, the tasks are only partially or insufficiently completed, you have a firm basis for criticism and for demanding a different behavior. Record all agreements in writing.
The aim is always to integrate employees so that they can contribute their know-how. Letting people go is always the last step. First of all, seek dialogue with colleagues (and also with superiors). Question your position and opinion. If you then still are convinced that a separation is the best thing for everyone, then follow through. You will always get support, because cynics are not on anyone’s wish list. They make themselves unpopular almost everywhere.
Conclusion: Create integrating facts. If other people do not like these facts or want to support them, i.e. if they would like to pull themselves out of performance responsibility and integration, they must explicitly contact you. Otherwise, quiet acceptance applies. You can refer to this again and again, if the cynics should not help to support the goals and company norms by their behavior. In this way you create an “official situation” to counter these disintegration attempts - or to accelerate them in a targeted and well-founded manner.