Around the world, we’ve become increasingly cynical about other people, public institutions, and corporations. In Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer, nearly 60% of respondents across 27 countries reported that their default is to distrust. And that’s very bad for business, says Stanford University associate professor of psychology Jamil Zaki. He says that cynics perform and feel worse, and in workplaces, they breed toxicity and lead to poor outcomes. He explains how to identify and change this kind of behavior at your organization. Zaki wrote the HBR article, “Don’t Let Cynicism Undermine Your Workplace.”
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
Are you a cynic? I, for one, am definitely an expect-the-worst, hope-for-the-best kind of girl. It’s not that I lack faith in all other people or even all organizations, but at the same time, I don’t count on positive actions or outcomes from most of them. And apparently, I might be more optimistic than a lot of you out there listening.
In Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer, nearly 60% of respondents across 27 countries reported that their default is to distrust others. Over the past few decades, trust in not just our peers, but also our political leaders, institutions, and corporations has plummeted. Unfortunately, that kind of cynicism can have really negative consequences for both the people who feel that way and the workplaces in which they’re employed.
Today’s guest, a professor of psychology at Stanford University has studied this phenomenon and has advice for how to combat it. Jamil Zaki wrote the HBR article, “Don’t Let Cynicism Undermine Your Workplace,” and he joins me now. Jamil, welcome.
JAMIL ZAKI: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
ALISON BEARD: First, how do you define cynicism?
JAMIL ZAKI: It’s a really important place to start. I would say that cynicism is a theory about the world, and in particular, about the social world. It’s a theory that is kind of like a dark lens that changes the way that we see other people, and in particular, it’s the theory that individuals are, in general, selfish, greedy, and dishonest, and when you take that as a starting point for your view of the world, the way that you start thinking about other people, about social interactions changes. You start to detect ulterior motives in everything that people do and to distrust the people around you, and unfortunately, as you said, this has lots of toxic effects on individuals and on their communities, including on the workplace.
ALISON BEARD: Now, you heard my intro, and I would describe myself as a little bit cynical, a little bit skeptical. Is there degrees to which a person can have this affliction and it isn’t a problem versus it is, or is just any bit of cynicism not good for you?
JAMIL ZAKI: Yeah, I think it’s really important to differentiate two terms that, I think people often consider pretty similar, and that’s cynicism and skepticism. Cynics would probably tell you that the opposite of cynicism is gullibility, blindly trusting other people, and that cynicism is a sort of wisdom, a hard-earned sense that, in fact, people cannot be trusted.
Skepticism is different. Skepticism is using a more scientific perspective, trying to test the waters with people and with relationships to see who can be trusted. In fact, it turns out that if anything, cynics are much closer to the gullible people who they often revile because they might not blindly trust people, but they often blindly mistrust people. So I think skepticism, waiting for evidence to figure out who you can trust is really smart and really wise, and not a little, but a lot of it is a good thing, but when it moves over into cynicism, an assumption about people based on no evidence that they can’t be trusted, well then, I think that is less useful.
ALISON BEARD: Okay, so that makes me feel a little bit better. It sounds like I’m a skeptic, not a cynic, but when you are cynical, how problematic does that become for yourself and for your organization, and how widespread a problem is it?
JAMIL ZAKI: Cynicism turns out to be something like a psychological poison that operates on a number of different levels. First, it’s really dreadful for people who experience it, so cynics, for instance, tend to suffer from more stress and depression than non-cynics. They have more cardiovascular disease. They’re even more likely to die younger than non-cynics.
Cynicism also contaminates our relationships. Cynics find it harder to trust and connect with people, to put their faith in others, and as a result, they often don’t form very strong relationships and have an easy time losing relationships through the way that they treat other people.
Cynicism also has really damaging effects to workplaces, so there’s a lot of research now that demonstrates that when a workplace is cynical, morale suffers, people turn over more, and mental health is worse. That’s the kind of feel-bad side of cynicism, but it’s important to also know that cynicism doesn’t just feel bad, it also interrupts our work processes.
For instance, it makes workplaces far less efficient. There’s something that economists call transaction costs. This is the money that we pay when we don’t believe in other people, for instance, to meticulously contract every interaction that we have and arbitrate disputes. It turns out that companies, organizations, firms that are high in cynicism tend to pay a lot more in transaction costs than those that operate on a basis of trust and connection, so cynicism is painful, hurtful to individuals, relationships, and workplaces.
To your second question, “How prevalent is it?,” unfortunately, the answer is that for all the damage that it does, cynicism is also really catchy, and it seems to be spreading more over the course of time. In 1972, about 45% of Americans believed that most people can be trusted. By 2018, that had dropped to 30%. Over that same period, our faith in all sorts of institutions, from politics to workplaces and industries to education, to science itself has crumbled, so we’re trapped really, for now, at least with a type of thinking that hurts us and also is spreading rapidly.
ALISON BEARD: How do you explain those steep increases? What’s going on – it doesn’t seem like people are born this way. Can societies, can organizations breed cynicism?
JAMIL ZAKI: Oh, 100%, and you’re exactly right, that cynics are not born, they’re made, so betrayal can make any of us feel less trusting. In fact, we’ve evolved as a species to look out for signs that other people might be after us, might try to harm us, might try to cheat us, and that’s a really good thing in some cases, right? We’re highly vigilant to signs that someone else might be untrustworthy, which helps us be protected from real crooks and swindlers. Unfortunately, it also causes us to see crooks and swindlers where they aren’t. That’s what I call badness attunement, and it’s one ingredient of our minds that makes cynicism easy to spread.
In my own lab, we found that if you present people with stories of somebody who does something moral and something immoral, so there’s sort of evidence on both sides that they might be good or they might be not so good, people judge that individual super harshly. They also gossip more about the negative things that people do than the positive things that they do, and we extrapolate more. When we learn about an immoral act, people decide that they’ve learned more about humanity than if they learn about something good that somebody does. In other words, we focus a whole lot on the worst in other people.
Oftentimes, cynicism can spread just between people in all sorts of communities, but especially when leaders in workplaces are cynical, it’s so easy for their worldview to work its way into how they lead and into their people. One example of this is zero-sum management, when you pit people against one another. The most famous example of this is Jack Welch and Steve Ballmer’s use of stack ranking, or I guess it was called rank and yank, where basically people on a team, some of them are assigned as high-performers and rewarded, some are assigned middle bucket, and others are assigned as low performers and not given a bonus or even laid off.
This is meant to drive people based on their competitive instincts, their selfishness, but unfortunately, what it actually does is make people feel as though everyone around them, including the people they’re supposedly working with, they’re actually working against. That sense of competition makes people into their most selfish and competitive and ruthless selves in ways that really destroy collaborative endeavors and make work much less efficient and much less effective.
ALISON BEARD: That style of leadership creates more cynics than you would have naturally?
JAMIL ZAKI: 100%, and you see it in the morale and experience of people who are on those teams, but again, I want to be clear here that sometimes when I talk with leaders about cynicism and the policies that make workplaces more cynical, they kind of say, “Yeah, you have a good point.” My folks would be more happy if I asked them to collaborate more and compete less, but then our efficiency would suffer, so I’m really making a choice between the bottom line or a feel-good approach to management.
I want to disabuse any listeners who feel that way of that notion, because it turns out that when you use stack ranking or other competitive policies, like rewarding people only for their individual outputs, not for the work that they do together, you’re actually creating a workplace that’s not just less happy, it’s also less efficient. It turns out that when people feel cynical in the workplace, when they feel like they’re competing with their peers, they’re less likely to share information. This is what’s known as information hoarding.
Well, that’s really bad for any collaborative team because if you’re working on a team, probably you have access to knowledge, and information, and perspectives that your colleagues don’t, and vice versa. Work can be so much more effective if people are open and willing to share, but cynical policies make people unwilling to do just that.
ALISON BEARD: What if though, you think that you’re leading a very collaborative team or a very collaborative organization, you don’t have some of these obvious policies that would lead to sort of zero-sum thinking, but there still might be cynics on your team who are undermining your progress? How do you recognize them?
JAMIL ZAKI: Well, I think that cynics show up in two ways. One is in the language they use and how they present, and then the other is in the effect that they have on other people, right? Sometimes cynicism isn’t something that someone is going to complain about if they’re the cynic, but they’re the people who work most closely with them might say, “Wow, it’s really exhausting to work with this person,” or their work might be less effective when they’re working with that individual.
Another thing I want to say is that sometimes leaders don’t think that they’re promoting cynicism, but they still can. One way to do that is by what I call overmanaging. We saw a lot of this during the pandemic, billions of people started working from home, and leaders had a choice. Would they trust their people to accomplish what they needed to do on their own timeline while probably managing, I don’t know, a family or sick relatives, or whatever other concerns we all had early in the pandemic, or would they try to make sure that folks were chained to their desk, doing exactly what they were supposed to do at the exact right time? I think a lot of leaders felt like it was scary to let go of that control. Like trust of their employees while they were at home was a form of weakness that would cause those employees to shirk or not perform their duties. That’s the type of cynicism, and it showed up through these kind of dystopic technologies that a lot of companies use, like sort of using people’s webcams and tracking their keystrokes and their mouse movements.
Those practices could be thought of as defensive leadership, where a leader is trying to protect themselves from a selfish workforce, but guess what? When you do that, when you engage in that type of leadership, you’re also sending your people a message that, “I don’t trust you. I think you are selfish, and I’m going to treat you as such,” and that can demoralize workers and also make them more likely to only do the bare minimum because they feel like they’re not given a chance to be more in the eyes of their leaders.
ALISON BEARD: Have you found that certain geographies or industries, or even functions are more likely to suffer from outbreaks of cynicism than others?
JAMIL ZAKI: Yes. I think that there are different industries that have different stances towards this, right? One is journalism. I’ve talked with a lot of journalists in researching this piece and a book that I’m writing on cynicism, and it’s almost the case that journalists feel as though cynicism is their mission, that the best way for them to promote positive change is to point out all that’s wrong with the world right now.
That is, in some ways, a noble goal. Sunlight can be a great disinfectant, but when what that produces is a new cycle that is only full of the worst things that people do and obscures, or even ignores the positive parts of our social lives, the positive things that people are doing, well, then I think that tips away from skepticism, which is great, and towards cynicism, which is less useful. I also think that in some cases, startup culture can promote a little bit of cynicism because there’s a culture of overclaiming. I think that startup founders are incentivized to spin a very, very exciting yarn about what they’re doing, and oftentimes that’s very well-placed and very well-earned, but it’s not always that way, and I think we’ve seen some major startups that have turned out to be built on a house of cards, and I think those instances, the Theranoses and WeWorks of the world have bred lots of cynicism in those industries and in our culture in general.
ALISON BEARD: I would imagine that sort of frontline workers, especially sort of the way they’ve been pushed and perhaps not rewarded throughout the pandemic, I can imagine that that would breed some cynicism about the fact that your employer, even your customers have your back.
JAMIL ZAKI: 100%, and I want to be clear that frontline workers who have experienced betrayal or have not felt supported by their workplaces are not making it up, so maybe that’s not cynicism, maybe that’s skepticism about the workplaces where they were. Now, the question is, “Is that the only option? Are all workplaces like that? Are all people like that?” When we decide that the worst that someone has done to us is all that there is, we stop looking for better opportunities.
We stop being able to imagine a better version of the culture that we’re in, and that can be paralyzing. I think a lot of folks think of hope as this Pollyannish, naive way of viewing things. I see it as quite the opposite. I think that cynicism can be this paralyzing force. It can be a tool of the status quo almost, and stop us from requesting and agitating for the change that we want to see in the world, whereas hope can help us push for a better world by allowing us to see it more clearly.
ALISON BEARD: In your work, you talk about there being a cynicism trap. How exactly are we getting trapped?
JAMIL ZAKI: The cynicism trap, I guess, comes in three different steps. The first is that we tend to, as we’ve been talking about, have suffer from badness attunement. We tend to pay a lot more attention to the worst of people than their best side, and as a result, we have a grossly mistaken view of who’s out there. If you ask folks, “What is the average person like?,” and then look for evidence about what the average person is really like, it turns out that the people we imagine are far more selfish, more judgmental, more extreme, even more violent than real people are.
We have a caricature in our mind. The philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre once said that, “Hell is other people.” I think maybe hell is actually who we imagined them to be, so that’s step one. That’s step one of the cynicism trap, is what we think people are and the way that we get them wrong. Step two of the cynicism trap is what I call preemptive strikes.
The version of people that we have in our mind is wrong, and that would be bad enough if it stayed in our head, but it doesn’t. We act based on our beliefs, and oftentimes, cynics, or all of us when we feel cynical, engage in behaviors that are meant to protect us and end up harming other people. For instance, if you’re a boss and you decide to surveil your employees, that’s a preemptive strike. You’re trying to protect yourself against a selfish workforce by doing something that’s actually harmful to your workforce. Oftentimes, cynics will threaten or sanction other people saying, “Hey, if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain, I’m going to sue you,” for instance.
That’s obviously implied in a contract, but the more aggressive that people are about it, the more that they’re engaged in preemptive strikes, and they think that that’s protecting themselves, but really, it’s breaking a relationship, or sometimes cynics will even cheat before someone else can. In order to not be the victim, they become the perpetrator. The third part of the cynicism trap is the effect that those preemptive strikes have on other people, because it turns out that when we treat someone as though they’re selfish, we make it more likely that they actually become selfish, because they feel unsafe around us. They feel cynical around us. There’s a great and sad example of this that came out of my home town of Boston and the fire department there.
There was a new Fire Chief who took over the Boston Fire Department in 2001, and he noticed that firefighters who up until then could take unlimited sick days were taking more sick days on Mondays and especially Fridays than any other day of the week, and he said, “Aha, these people are bad. They’re selfish.” He had this kind of badness attunement about his own workforce, deciding that-
ALISON BEARD: Trying to take three-day weekends.
JAMIL ZAKI: Exactly. Exactly, that they were just taking vacation time and pretending to be sick. He took a preemptive strike. One of his first policy plans, one of his first policy moves was he said, “No more unlimited sick days. You’re going to be capped at 15 a year, and if you take more than that without a doctor’s note, I’m going to dock your pay severely.” Now, Alison, what do you think happened when he rolled out that policy? What do you think the effects of it would be?
ALISON BEARD: Everyone used all 15 sick days?
JAMIL ZAKI: Bingo. It turned out that the average firefighter in Boston had taken far less than that. In fact, across the entire fire department, there had been about 6,000 sick days the year before this policy, and across the entire fire department, there were 13,000 the year after the policy was rolled out, so firefighters took more than two times the number of sick days, and, Alison, exactly to your intuition, which is right on, the number of firefighters who took exactly 15 sick days increased by tenfold. In other words, these folks were given a message, that they were not trusted.
The Fire Chief took a preemptive strike, and guess what? His workforce did. They retaliated. People are greatly affected by the way that we treat them. Cynics think that they’re protecting themselves when in fact, they’re harming others and harming their relationships, and other people give that right back to us. Those three steps together are the way that I think of the cynicism trap. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Yeah, vicious cycle. Let’s talk about how to escape it. What can we do first at the individual level if we realize that we, ourselves or a teammate, another person we know is suffering from it?
JAMIL ZAKI: As individuals, I think we can be aware of our biases. I think knowledge is power, and when we know that our default is to see the worst in other people, to pay lots of attention to the harms that they do and less to the good that they do, we can be skeptical of our own cynicism. We can interrogate inside our minds. The next time that you have that uncharitable assumption about somebody else, ask yourself, “What evidence am I basing that on? Am I really sure that this person is out to get me, or is only acting out of their own self-interest, or do I maybe need more evidence?” That type of internal audit, I think can be really helpful. A second is to take a leap of faith on somebody else.
The writer, Ernest Hemingway once said that, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them,” and I think that’s true to some degree, but I think that when we trust people, we don’t just learn about them, we also change them. If we show people that we trust them, and I’m not saying to trust everybody with all of your life savings or with your children, but when we take those little leaps of faith, giving people a chance to show us who they are, they often see that and are honored by that, and they end up stepping up, the opposite of what happened in the Boston Fire Department. Economists call this earned trust. When people realize that we trust them, they’re more likely to want to behave in a way that meets those trusting expectations. Those are two individual things that, I think we can do.
I think leaders can also try to apply this to the way that they manage their teams. One is to focus not on only what individuals do on their own when rewarding or incentivizing them, but also to think about how we can reward and valorize teamwork and mutual support among our people. Then, the other is to, when we can, let go of managing people so tightly. Show them that we trust them in the leaps of faith that we take in them.
ALISON BEARD: When you see that your team or your entire organization might be suffering from cynicism on this broad level, what’s the best thing to do as a leader? Do you sort of directly say, “We’ve gotten too cynical and I want to do something about it”?
JAMIL ZAKI: I think that that’s one option, I think it depends on how bad the problem is and how aware people are of it. If it’s just a culture where you’re worried it’s becoming a little bit more cynical, you can take some practical steps.
Like I love what Satya Nadella did at Microsoft, where he changed the incentive structure and reward structure there to focus more on collaboration and what people were doing for others, but in some cases, it’s really obvious to everybody that a workplace has become cynical, and taking it head on might be quite important.
I think that there are things that leaders can do to focus their people on, what I would call goodness attunement, the opposite of badness attunement, which is, I think sometimes cynicism comes from the stories that we tell about ourselves and our cultures, whether that’s our workplace culture or our culture at large.
What a leader can do is start to not just reward people who are showing up for each other, who are being selfless, supportive, and kind in the workplace, but also to talk a lot more about those people. A lot of organizations have a culture of genius where they talk about the incredible performance that one person had. I think it would be great to have a culture of heroes, where we talk about the enormous acts of kindness that are occurring in a workplace every day, because I think in almost every large firm, there are tons of positive actions occurring all the time. They just go under the radar.
So I think that one thing that leaders can do, in addition to saying, “Hey, we’ve become too cynical” is say, “And we don’t need to be because there’s a lot of good happening all around you,” and by elevating that, by talking about it, by making it visible, we can pivot people’s thinking about their community towards a more positive framework.
ALISON BEARD: What evidence do you have that these interventions do work, actually improve employee well-being and corporate performance?
JAMIL ZAKI: Yeah, there’s lots of correlational evidence about the role of cynicism and anti-cynicism in workplaces, so there’s tons of data at this point, decades of data that demonstrate that cynical workplaces tend to not just be less happy, but be less effective. Individuals in those workplaces perform less well, cynics also earn less money over the course of their careers than non-cynics, and also firm performance and efficiency is lowered, like we were talking about, transaction costs before, and that’s one way in which cynical workplaces do less well.
In fact, my colleagues and I have been trying to get beyond correlations and have been starting to do some interventions to promote trust among managers, so I’ve been collaborating with SAP for the last two years, and we have a project where we train managers to build cultures of trust among their teams, and we found, and these are data that are hot off the presses, but we found that managers who enroll in our programs compared to those in a control group have pretty significant improvements in their net performer scores on their management and that their teams tend to thrive as well, so we’re starting to come up with some more direct evidence, not just that cynicism is bad for workplaces, but that interventions to help decynicize a workplace can be quite helpful as well.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. What about sort of on a broader level, expanding out from the individual to the organization to society?
JAMIL ZAKI: I mean, I think that one thing that I want to be clear on is that cynicism doesn’t help us change society in the way that we want. Now, cynicism isn’t our only problem either, and optimism and hope alone won’t fix things. I’m not here to preach that people should just be happy and look at the bright side, and that everything will fix itself. Our society has deep, broad, and very real problems, but when we get cynical, when we decide that that’s all there is, when we decide that the worst of us is the truest part of what humanity really is, we give up. I think cynicism robs us of our imagination and zaps us of our energy, and in that way, can be a tool of the status quo.
I think if you look at progressive or activist communities all over the world, people who have made change to improve human rights or decrease inequality, or promote justice, a lot of those folks are very anti-cynical. They think of hope not as a feel-good strategy, but as a practice, because when we focus on hope and on the good that people have in them, we realize that the problems we have aren’t necessarily there forever, and that we can imagine a better world, and that probably most people around us want things to change for the better. I think using hope as a kind of lens to discover our community and to think about the changes that we want to make is a really powerful strategy for making those changes. I guess hope can be a tool for building a better world by helping us see it more clearly.
ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Well, I like ending an episode all about cynicism on that very upbeat note. We can make change in our organizations and in our society if we have healthy skepticism, but don’t let it descend into cynicism so that we can make forward progress together. Jamil, thank you so much for being on the show. I learned a lot, and I really appreciate it.
JAMIL ZAKI: It’s been a total pleasure. Thanks for having me.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Jamil Zaki. He’s an Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, an author of the HBR article, Don’t Let Cynicism Undermine Your Workplace.
If you like today’s episode, we have more podcasts to help you manage yourself, your team, and your organization. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts, or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe, we get technical help from Rob Eckhardt, Hannah Bates is our Audio Production Assistant, and Ian Fox is our Audio Product Manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.