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Posted: January 12, 2012

The glass half-empty syndrome

Cynicism can suck the life out of an organization

Todd 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.

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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,  303-527-0417 or

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Readers Respond

Hi Robert-I always appreciate your perspective! Well put. Todd By Todd Ordal on 2012 01 13
Todd, great column as always. David's on to something ... sarcasm and cynicism are close cousins if not siblings. They have the somewhat sneaky quality of sounding clever; however, the damage they do to open, honest and result oriented communication is immense. My book "Living an Extraordinary Life" emphasizes taking personal responsibility for your communication -- a choice all too lacking in many people and organizations. Robert By Robert White on 2012 01 13
Ruth- A 2x4 upside the head is a the way that most of us make significant change! Thanks for sharing. David- Good question. I don't know that my definition will hold up to scrutiny from my old English teacher, but cynicism seems to be the filter through which some people view the world. I see sarcasm as a manifestation of cynicism. I believe that you're right that most would make sarcastic remarks in an attempt at humor, but often they don't succeed. I just spent an evening with someone who has a PhD in sarcasm and it was painful! Cheers Todd By Todd Ordal on 2012 01 12
Now that you've made me think about it, sarcasm is just funny cynicism, and probably just as damaging. Would you say so? By David Sneed on 2012 01 12
Todd, This is soo true and I hate to admit it, but I'm a recovering cynic. I use to work in a big corporation hanging out with the Grinch crowd you talk about. Until, one day I was downsized and I had to look at myself in the mirror a little closer. I had an aha moment when I started a new career at a different company and got some feedback from a new set of colleagues. I can laugh now, but it was a tough lesson to learn. Thanks, Ruth By Ruth Cameron on 2012 01 12

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