Skepticism vs. Cynicism

While occasional doubt can lead to smart decisions, pure pessimism can block success

As president of The Franciscan Center, a Baltimore-based organization providing services to the poor, Karen Heyward-West often butted heads with the organization’s board of trustees over how best to help its clients become self-sufficient. In 2007, the board vetoed her ideas so often that at one point, the 44-year-old Heyward-West gave up on anything ever changing and started to believe her efforts were pointless. Eventually, her work habits reflected her pessimism. “I started leaving reports to the last minute because I would be like, ‘It doesn’t matter, they’re not going to read it anyway,’” she admits.  She also stopped participating fully in board meetings. “I gave one-word answers,” she recalls. “I was there, but I wasn’t there.”

Heyward-West admits she was experiencing cynicism—a feeling of distrust coupled with an outlook in which one automatically expects the worse. While it can be healthy to be somewhat skeptical in business, questioning the motives of a person or the soundness of a plan, cynicism can be harmful because it implies hopelessness about the situation, says Nicole Cutts, a licensed clinical psychologist and chief executive officer of Cutts Consulting L.L.C., an organizational and professional development firm based in Washington, D.C. “With cynicism, you have a negative expectation that can be self-fulfilling,” Cutts says. For example, rather than seeing colleagues as potential allies, a cynical person might see them as enemies, she adds, creating an adversarial relationship rather than one that is cooperative.

No situation is hopeless, says Menetta E. Myers, a Fairfax, Virginia-based psychologist. If you feel jaded or cynical about your professional role, there are ways to transform this mindset.

Find a new source of motivation. After seeing her work suffer, Heyward-West realized she had lost sight of why she originally took the job. Once she refocused, Heyward-West’s passion for the job returned.
Focus on self-improvement. Consider whether frustration at work may be the result of your own inefficiencies, says Myers. “It may be that you haven’t been able to figure out how to manage that environment or you need to learn skills such as how to manage difficult people,” she says. Taking a leadership development class or a communication workshop can help.

Consider moving on. Sometimes cynicism can be a sign that a workplace is not a good fit. Or maybe it’s not a reflection of the job, but rather a personality trait, Myers says. If that’s the case, a business coach or a therapist can help you learn to frame situations more positively.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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