Posted: January 12, 2012
The glass half-empty syndrome
Cynicism can suck the life out of an organizationTodd Ordal
Optimism is one quality of an emotionally intelligent leader. Have you ever been part of a team led by someone who believed that their team was destined for great things? It's inspiring and fun and it gives you a fighting chance to scale tall mountains. (Too much optimism, of course, is delusional. When the horse is dead, you can't will it to victory. It's time to get off and find another horse.)
There is a dangerous disease that can suck the optimism out of a team faster than the Grinch can steal the presents from Whoville; cynicism. Although not the direct opposite of optimism (which is pessimism), cynicism can bog down an organization and put a good size ding in the culture. Can optimism and cynicism simultaneously exist in large quantities? I don't think so.
Having a small bit of this affliction, I appreciate the well-timed cynical comment that can lighten up a situation (for example, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?"). The problem occurs when cynicism becomes embedded in an organization through its conversations, meetings and even processes. When you start from a position of, "This ain't gonna work," or "All of my people are dopes," you're in trouble. Bart Simpson is cynical and funny, but no one will follow him into battle.
Cynicism robs people of energy. Why show enthusiasm for a new product, customer or idea when the room will just shoot it down? Cynicism also destroys innovation. If my ideas have to get through Calvin Curmudgeon to see the light of day, I'll quit trying (or just quit). Cynics don't see failure as a necessary step to success; they see it as predictive ... of everything!
Cynics also like to hang out together; they find energy at the bottom of the pool. Interestingly, however, they rarely offer solutions and are not good members of a team trying to solve a problem, as they just want to bring up more problems. I'll bet there aren't too many cynics in Apple's product development organization. Cynics can't stand to be around positive, optimistic people. It wears them out. They cringe when they hear words such as "Outstanding!" and "Great job!" because they believe good things happen to those who are lucky, not good.
Optimism works, and it's infectious! Receiving no birthday card from my kids doesn't mean they hate me; they're disorganized! Bob isn't lucky because he got that great account; he's persistent! The situation isn't hopeless; it's a cool challenge that we can overcome! That's the team I want to be on.
Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info, 303-527-0417 or firstname.lastname@example.org