Fight negative effects of cynicism with hope

By John Langhorne / Guest Editorial

When thinking about leadership, we often focus on the positive examples. However, there is much to be learned by looking at negative examples of leadership.

These are often instances of behaviors that are so palpably wrong they seem obvious. The perception of the “manager from hell” is such a case. The question, “Have you ever worked for the manager from hell,” is understood and responded to in groups and one-on-one settings. It’s also an effective way to prime the pump for an interesting conversation.

However, there are many less visible patterns of behavior that can gradually creep into an organization’s culture and have profoundly negative effects. One such behavior is cynicism.

Cynicism, to borrow from Wikipedia’s definition, is an attitude characterized by a general distrust of others’ motives. Cynical people believe that humans are selfish by nature, are ruled by negative emotion, and are heavily influenced by the same instincts that helped humans survive in primitive times. A cynic may also have a general lack of hope in humans and their ability to effect positive change.

This attitude allows the cynic to treat people in an unkind and disrespectful manner, either orally on in writing. The most obvious examples of this behavior can be seen on the Internet and all too often in the print media, where much of what is written appears to convey blame or guilt. Monica Lewinsky has an interesting TED video on this topic ( Some say words cannot hurt you, but only a naive or foolish person believes such nonsense.

To be cynical is to use a dysfunctional rationalization, or a behavioral pattern that allows us to find a personally acceptable reason for personal habits; thus, the cynic never needs to examine their own behavior or understand its effects on others. I once worked closely with such a person for years. Later, after she was long gone from my life, I would joke that she was a person you often disliked when you first met her, but that after you got to know her, you really feared or hated her. This was before I learned that the Latin root for sarcasm is “tearing flesh.”

It is clear that some people bring their cynicism to the workplace, and that it largely stems from toxic life or work experiences. Cyncism can be like a cancer cell that metastasizes in an organization – a point reflected by Lockerz founder and CEO Kathy Savitt, who touched on the ability for the attitude to spread through an organization during an interview with the New York Times (Find a link to the interview at

Reflecting on my own experiences, I recently worked with an organization trying to identify the strong negative pattern that emerged from my conversations with leadership and employees. Perhaps half of the people in the organizational unit had developed a cynical attitude as a result of very poor management. One employee, who had escaped to a more functional unit in the same company, described the culture as a “contagion of negativism.” Other adjectives and phrases used to describe the management style included “chaotic,” “never forgive, never forget,” “temper tantrums” and “lots of drama.”

Altering this unit and returning it to productivity was a major challenge, with one person aptly observing how easy it is to break things and so difficult to fix them. But just what does it take to turn around an organization like this?

In a previous column (, I noted that the four products of leadership are trust, compassion, stability and hope. The verbs that energize these four needs are fascinating. You must build trust, show compassion, provide stability and create hope.

Hope is, more than anything else, about the future. It is in some ways more powerful than even realistic optimism, because it is not constrained by the limitations of reality. Hopeful people – particularly leaders – can communicate a vision for a better future. Just as cynics are without hope, many people remain equally cognizant of its power.

Those of you who study history will recognize that hope is a core element of great leadership. Think of Abraham Lincoln, who told us that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” or Franklin Roosevelt, who said, “I pledge to you, I pledge to myself, a new deal for the American people.”

Indeed, hope is a powerful motivator, and the first line of defense against the corroding influence of cynicism and doubt.




John Langhorne is owner and principal of Langhorne Associates His most recent book, Beyond IQ: Practical Steps To Find the Best You, is available digitally at Amazon.