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12 May '13

Dealing with attitudes of cynicism on your staff

Posted by T.J. Addington

There is an attitude on the part of staff toward their leadership (whether it be their church board or ministry leaders) which is a killer in terms of morale, trust, and team effectiveness: cynicism.

It is popular to be cynical about leaders. But it is not healthy and good leaders address this attitude whenever it shows up among their senior team - or others. Cynicism is a choice people make and it is deadly because it leads directly to mistrust of leadership among those with whom they have influence. If I am cynical about my leader, those with whom I have influence pick up on that and will often mirror my attitude.

Cynicism shows up in derogatory comments, in mistrusting motives of leadership, in refusing to accept answers given and instead assuming less than honorable intentions rather than assuming the best and in an arrogant attitude that ones leaders ought to do as we think they ought to do.

There is no way around it: Cynicism is deadly to a team and an organization.

Cynical people often hide behind the excuse, "I don't have a voice." Sometimes that is true - and the truth is that if I cannot serve my organization with a happy heart and a clear conscience I am in the wrong organization. But it is not an excuse for me to undermine my leadership with cynicism. If I am in an organization that breeds cynicism, I probably need to find another place to serve.

More often, however, this is a smokescreen for the real issue: "I don't like choices or decisions my leaders make." Having a voice means that I have the ability to share my thoughts honestly and openly (but without personal agendas or hidden motives). Once I have shared those opinions, I must allow leadership to make whatever decisions they choose to make and refuse to undermine them in words, attitudes or insinuation. That is integrity and it is the opposite of cynicism.

How does a leader deal with cynical team members? First, never put a cynical person in a key position. No matter how good they are they will hurt you more than help you. Cynicism is poison to your team or organization.

Second, when it happens, confront it directly and make it clear that cynicism and mistrust are not going to be tolerated in your team and that if it continues, you will take corrective action. Follow up those conversations with a written document that clarifies what you have said.

Third, if it becomes pervasive, speak to the whole staff and be defining about what attitudes are acceptable and what attitudes are not. Cynical people operate behind the scenes spreading their brand of poison one person at a time. Calling it out publicly puts them on notice that you are not unaware of their behavior and that you will not tolerate behavior that is detrimental to the health of your team or organization.

Fourth, if it is continues, remove the source by removing the individual who is guilty of hurting the team. That will send the strongest message of all that this behavior is unacceptable.

The effectiveness of our ministries depends directly on the health of our teams. Cynicism is a direct threat to the health of the ministry because it breeds mistrust. 

I for one, will not tolerate mistrust or cynicism among key leaders in the organization I lead. It is poison, dangerous and will destroy the health of the team. Healthy leaders take responsibility for the organizational culture they create and they do not tolerate cynicism.