(Let’s Get) Cynical! Just a Little

Perhaps if we’d been more minded to say…

“Hang on a minute, if I buy this property today, it will be worth twice as much next year? Are you serious?”


“If I take on a mortgage that’s 8 times my salary, won’t I get into financial difficulty at some point?”

…we might have found ourselves in a very different situation.

So I’m going to think the unthinkable and argue that perhaps it’s time we re-branded Cynicism.


Now I can hear the cynic in you thinking, “But this flies in the face of everything we’ve ever been told. Aren’t we supposed to be positive and look for the good in everything?” And do you know what? I think you’re absolutely right, on both counts. But looking for the good doesn’t need to preclude looking for the bad, or the ugly, or the just plain wrong!

Let’s take a look at the opposite extreme. Blind positivity is as bad (and arguably at lot more dangerous) as sticking your head in the ground and refusing to budge. Unbridled positivity can be as damaging as cynicism in full flight.

Alternatively, if you’re standing at the altar about to get married, it doesn’t help to convince yourself that your partner won’t turn up just because all the others didn’t! Better to focus on all the reasons why they fell for you in the first place.

But I’m not interested in extremes. The trick is getting the right balance: just a smidgeon of cynicism goes a long way.

Take a moment to think what a little more cynicism might give us.

  1.  It might just prompt us to stop and reflect for a few seconds longer than it takes for the salesman to sell us his grandmother

  2. It might stop companies hurling themselves into futile and catastrophic ventures based on some dodgy data that at first glance looks very convincing

  3. It might just prevent organisations introducing a wildly optimistic new HR system, or repeatedly re-organising teams and departments

  4. It might just reintroduce a little bit of sanity back into the workplace.

But…. (Ah, there’s always a ‘but’! Of course there is, that’s what being cynical is all about.)

Here’s the rub. This re-branding isn’t a licence for all the ‘after the horse has bolted brigade’ to sit smugly on the side-lines saying “I told you so”, when in fact they had simply sat on the fence, not committing to anything other than stasis when the plan was being conceived.

Let’s face it cynicism has received a bad press. It’s been usurped by the doom mongers and naysayers: the people who have turned being curmudgeonly into an art-form. And our reaction has been to brand all cynicism and scepticism as negative..

So for cynicism to work, small and well-measured doses are better. A fixed stare is scary, whereas occasional eye-contact can be reassuring. You can have too much of a good thing.

So for all of you who are now thinking, “Great, now I have a perfect excuse to be a thorn in the side of my team, because Tim Lambert says so”, read on to find out why that wouldn’t be the appropriate response.

Cynicism can work, and we have a right to use it but, as we all know, with rights come responsibilities.

Responsible Cynicism – the New Black

So, what’s the responsible way of being cynical?

  1. Don’t keep it to yourself…cynicism needs a voice so shout it out loud and own it. If you’ve got doubts, give people the chance to hear them. Don’t sit quietly convincing yourself of all the reasons why “this will never work” without affording your team the courtesy of sharing your wisdom with them.  If you articulate it, and explain it, you might realize that you are talking baloney! Or you might realize that you actually have a valid point.

  2. Spread the load. It’s not helpful if you only have one cynic on your team. It just becomes accepted that they will always resist change, so their outbursts are tolerated and quietly ignored. Instead, give everyone a chance to be cynical. In fact, why not take it in turns?

  3. Set Aside ‘Cynic Time’ and Limit it. Make space in your meetings to carry out a ‘Devil’s Advocate’ exercise just before making your final decision. Ask simple questions like, “What if it doesn’t work?”, or “What’s the worst that could happen?”, or “Why won’t it work?” But keep it brief and balance it with time to ask, “Why might this work?”

  4.  Target your Cynicism. Be specific rather than generic. Be precise about the issue or idea you are cynical of, and don’t allow that cynicism to colour your judgement of all the other elements. Evaluate everything on its own merits.

  5.  Keep Your Attention on the Prize. Never lose sight of why you’re even considering doing something new. It’s usually because what you’ve already got isn’t working, or isn’t working well. The role of Cynicism here is to make sure you don’t end up with something worse, not that you stick with the rot you’ve got.

  6. Ask Lots of Questions and Get Your Facts Straight.  Don’t proceed on faulty assumptions. Make sure you probe and analyse with an open mind. People often mistake this for not showing enough commitment, but the alternative is worse.

  7. Don’t apologize for being cynical, but do signal that it is cynicism and not something much worse like sabotage!

  8. Be Discerning with your Cynicism and your Positivity. Use them both wisely and don’t dismiss either out of hand. You can be positive and cynical at the same time…in just the right amounts.

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. Be responsible, exercise a little bit of healthy cynicism, and try it out for yourself! After all, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

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