Cynicism at the workplace comes in many different forms and seems to have increased in the last few years in light of mass layoffs, mergers, and corporate scandals (Anderson, 1996). In 1991, Mirvis and Kanter reported that 43% of American workers exhibited highly cynical attitudes toward work. The popularity of the comic strip Dilbert further indicates the prevalence of cynicism in today’s work place (Dean, Brandes, & Dharkwadkar, 1998). A Google search on ‘cynicism at the workplace’ produced 408 000 results, including a segment on NPR from May 2007 dealing with the topic of cynicism. The anchor only half-jokingly remarked that General Motors’ employees had good reason to be cynical in the face of plant closings and the loss of more than 30 000 jobs. The question arises if workplace cynicism has to inevitably follow the decline of American businesses, and if there are any factors that could potentially positively influence cynicism.
Information from opinion polls paints a mixed picture. Gallup (2007) reported that only 18% of the American people had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in big business in 2007, a steady decline from the high point of 33 % in 1977 and 30% in 1999, which would support an increase in organizational cynicism. However, Gallup also reported the overall satisfaction of workers with their workplace in 2007 was fairly high. 56% of US workers are satisfied with their job security, and 60% were completely or somewhat satisfied with their supervisors (Gallup, 2007). Likewise, the percentage of workers who were somewhat or completely dissatisfied was reported as only 6% in August 2007 as compared to 14% in August 2005 (Gallup, 2007). Does this increase in satisfaction mean that there will be a corresponding decrease in cynicism at the workplace as well?
In this paper, I will define cynicism and give an overview of the different types of cynicism and its causes, which will provide some insight on how to prevent cynicism from spreading in an organization, especially when the organization is undergoing change.
The term cynicism can be traced back to its roots in ancient Greece describing a group of people who showed contempt towards society, which focused on the pursuit of material goods (Andersson, 1996; Andersson & Bateman, 1997; Dean, Brandes, & Dharkwadkar, 1998). Nowadays, the most commonly accepted and widely quoted definition is provided by Dean, Brandes and Dharkwadkar (1998) who posit that cynicism is a negative attitude towards one’s employing organization, consisting of three elements “(1) a belief that the organization lacks integrity; (2) negative affect toward the organization; (3) tendencies to disparaging and critical behaviors (p. 345).” The cynical belief system is founded on the notion that people and the organizations they work in lack sincerity, act mostly based on self interest, and have hidden agendas. Cynical employees believe that they are exploited and not adequately...