How cynicism can grow or destroy software organizations.

June 10, 2019 · 6 minute read

Cynicism, distrust, skepticism, doubt, disbelief; an inclination to question whether something will happen or whether it is worthwhile; pessimism. At some point in our lives, we find cynics on our environment: “I don’t believe we can do this thing” or “I really think we shouldn’t do that”, “Why bother going and doing it, we are not going to succeed anyway”. If you think about it, there are two voices behind a cynic: the voice of experience, and the voice of emotion. Even though we have had studies write about how cynicism makes us earn less money, cynicism gives woman more likelihood of heart desease and how cynicism affects the health of elderly people, we also seem to value people who are skeptical, because they tend to err in the side of caution, and seem knowledgeable. I think Jennifer Kunst from Psychology Today puts it nicely:

Because of its appeal as a protection from danger, cynicism has gained a lot of ground and respect in our culture today. Sometimes I think that it has even been promoted to virtue status. Cynical people are seen as smart, strong-minded, independent thinkers. Cynical people are viewed as realistic, scientific, and even cool.

Where does cynicism come from? Some articles state that it meant to be a way to protect us emotionally, in a world where someone finds their environment hostile, the cynic will survive longer than someone who trusts others. While other authors sustain that is a reaction to the emotional environment people have been exposed in previous experiences.

The noble side of cynicism.

Cynicism shows that someone cares, and it comes from a deep emotional source. Often it shows itself when the voice of experience is not heard. Imagine you know something is not going to work, because you’ve done it 100 times and failed. You’d want to stop whatever is going to fail to save others and yourself, right? But no one listens to you. Your concerns are not being addressed. “Why would we expect to do this and succeed?”

This is good, this is your experience telling you that something is wrong, the bad part is how you are communicating this concerns you have. It doesn’t matter how good your concerns are unless you can communicate them effectively.

Killing morale and creating confusion

The bad part about cynicism is two-fold: how it can affect morale of teams, and how it can lead to decision paralysis.

I think it’s unwise in life to become too cynical - cynicism can lead to paralysis under a theory that “well, we’re all fucked anyway so why bother.” - Jimmy Wales

You can tell when you have a cynic on the team, it’s difficult to move forward, to address difficult issues and leverage your team to do more. It pains us by giving us hopelessness.

In my first job, we had the office cynic. He oversaw telling us we were behind, that we were never going to be able to ship the product at hand and that we should scrap everything and start again.

We did end up shipping the product, but I’d be willing to wager that a big part of why the team felt like it was lagging and annoyed about how the product was progressing was because of these comments. People weren’t happy they shipped, but more concerned on how everything was going worse.

Bad morale is like a snowball, you must stop or reboot it before it becomes an avalanche. People have a hard time coping with all the things on their lives: How am I going to finish my work? Am I doing enough for promotion? Am I earning the company money? To also have the friction of people to know that they are going to have to fight the cynic to deliver.

How to leverage cynicism?

Here are a set of things that I’ve seen can make it better over time, while any of these measures isn’t the silver bullet to end it, I’ve found that they are tremendously effective.

  • Empathize and Validate The cynic voices their concerns out of two origins: they care, or they stopped caring. Either way, there is a huge emotional factor. Just by Acknowledging it changes the perspective of someone. It shifts the conversation to They heard me, and they’ve listened to me. Empathy can go a long way to make people feel better.

  • Effective communication Addressing someone concerns, and then digging through them, can help you discover problems you didn’t think you have. Ask questions and clarification by mirroring the other party’s sentences.

Pete: Everything is a mess; I don’t know why we even bother

Mark: Why do you feel everything is a mess?

Pete: I feel like we are releasing a rushed service, we are not putting the quality bar high enough.

Mark: I see, you think we are not setting the bar high enough? (mirroring)

Pete: Yeah, I don’t think there is enough tests for this part, I feel like I can’t understand it.

Mark: I can see how you can feel like that; I sometimes feel like that too (validation) would adding some tests help you address those concerns?

  • Work on the team dynamic If cynicism is present in your organization, it may be a symptom of synergy not being awesome, try to address the grassroots problem. Are people enjoying being together? Is the morale good? Can we do something that gathers us as a team? Can we volunteer together?

What if the conditions aren’t right?

When I initially wrote this blog, I found that the main argument against writing it was that the answer from people can be cynical — ironically — to: Well yeah, that assumes I have a boss I can talk to, but my company sucks and my boss sucks, and we are stuck in the mud!. It might be the case that you are truly done, and you really can’t do anything. (Maybe you are the cynic?) In that case I really do recommend this book: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

I ended up writing this blog because I’ve seen pessimism and cynicism in my jobs throughout the years, and I feel that some managers have been really effective with the techniques above in handling pessimism and cynicism, so I wanted to share them with you. How do you handle pessimism, cynicism and morale in your organization? Have you had a someone like this in your organization?

As always, this post is open source at GitHub I encourage you to raise an issue or a PR.

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