One of my first managers used to say a bad attitude in the workplace is like cholera. Once one person gets it, unfortunately, it spreads like wildfire before taking down the original source. And over the years, I’ve seen one coworker’s negativity significantly affect the culture of an entire team. In another small-business case I heard about recently, in which the CEO himself possessed a bad attitude, the staff became so demoralized that the entire company went under.
As the publisher of Forbes, Rich Karlgaard has seen it all, and he felt that employee cynicism was enough of a problem to write a whole book about it. In The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success, Karlgaard says, “Mocking irony, snark, and cynicism are very much in vogue, but they are also toxic to your company’s culture.”
People view cynicism as less harmful than overt negativity, and that’s part of the problem. “Cynicism trivializes the gravity of bad behavior and normalizes superior attitudes toward customers and, often, coworkers,” Karlgaard says. “But it’s also a red flag that something is awry in your company.”
According to Karlgaard’s work, what’s missing is trust. “Cynicism is the defense mechanism of people who feel unsafe and powerless. It’s an expression of the uncertainty that comes from working in an environment where ethics are lax, employees don’t feel valued, and information is withheld,” he says.
Indeed, employee trust in companies has declined over the last few decades. The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer study, which surveys the trust and credibility of government and business, reports that in North America, only 43 percent of people trust CEOs. In fact, CEOs are the least trusted spokespeople, sitting only above government officials.
Karlgaard hypothesizes that efforts to boost employee trust will naturally result in a decrease in cynicism and negativity. How can you build trust within your organization?
Understand that trust is both internal and external. First, there’s the external trust between an organization and its customers. Will a company stand behind its products? If something goes wrong, will it do the right thing? The second dimension is the internal trust between employees, managers and top-level management. Do leaders keep their promises? Can employees speak up without censure? Generally, what’s true externally is also true internally.
Develop a vision of a trusting culture. Hold a company-wide summit at which everyone can share opinions about what a trusting environment looks like. Include an anonymous component like a suggestion box or online survey. Get everyone’s input, from the C-suite to the custodian. Your goal should be to pin down exactly how a culture of trust translates to leader and employee behaviors. Then, come up with a list of rules, such as “I will not badmouth customers to other employees,” put them in writing, and get all your employees to sign the document.
Select earnest leaders. Whether they are conscious of it or not, employees emulate the behavior of those in charge. Leaders who roll their eyes when a certain customer calls are giving permission for employees to be similarly disrespectful. The key is to hire and promote leaders who are positive and engaged. If there is a bad apple in your bunch, take proactive steps to neutralize him or her.
Tell the truth, even when they won’t like hearing it. Without open communication and transparency, there is no trust. Even when the news is bad, employees should never feel like they’re being kept in the dark. If you have to downsize or eliminate bonuses this year, be honest and straightforward even if you feel like a jerk. They’ll find out anyway, and when they do, they’ll resent you.
Show that you care—for real. While it’s true that fake or contrived caring only increases cynicism, genuine caring that transcends hierarchy dissolves it. This means that you—and your team leaders—have to take a personal interest in employees’ lives and stand up for their best interests.
Communicate that you want people to speak up. Can your employees share their input and ideas and expect to be taken seriously? Every member of your team should feel confident in participating in meetings and projects, saying what’s on their minds and admitting mistakes. Remind them of this often, and always be sincere.
I think Karlgaard’s suggestions are right on the money, and I’d also add that it’s helpful to have a solid understanding of your company’s “reason for being” that you feel passionately about and love to rally people around. After all, enthusiasm is just as contagious as cynicism.
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