It seems counterintuitive, but cynicism can be a positive influence in our workplaces. How is this possible? Allow me to explain.
When people are cynical, they are giving us honest feedback about how they really feel about a situation. When was the last time that you heard a cynical remark from a colleague and you accused them of not being honest regarding how they really feel? This is aside from the sarcastic remark: "So, Janice, tells us how you really feel!" Cynicism communicates from the heart, so you don't have to question whether the person is being honest with their comments.
Cynical remarks give us a reality check about what was said, promised or done in the past. When people question the probability of the most recent promise actually happening, they almost always refer back to a prior promise or commitment that was not fulfilled. For example, "Oh, so this is just like the time the management said that if we got the project completed on time, we would share in the bonus the company received—well that didn't happen." These comments help us remember what we said—and failed to follow through on—before. Cynical people become sort of our informal historians.
Cynicism lets us know how people perceive our words and actions. Have you ever noticed that most cynical remarks are fairly quick, "on the spot" quips or comebacks to a statement? They are largely unedited thoughts and attitudes spoken out loud in the moment. And they fairly directly communicate how others view what we just said, did or promised. Unfortunately, the message often is, "I don't believe you." Most cynical remarks give us a clue that we need to work on our follow-through on what we say. Sometimes, however, I will admit, that cynicism is coming from the heart of the speaker, that they are angry and resentful about life in general, and that their remark may have little to do with you, me or whoever is speaking at the time.
Cynicism provides the opportunity to learn what would be really meaningful to others. If we take the time to listen to the cynical comment, and not dismiss it immediately as "disrespectful" and "unfounded," then we actually may learn something from our colleagues. A follow-up question such as, "What would could be done that would start to demonstrate that we mean what we say?" can provide some valuable insight into how our colleagues are thinking—and how we can begin to rebuild trust within the organization.
Let me be clear: I am not advocating for implementing strategies for increasing cynicism in our work environments; there seems to be plenty enough to go around already. But, I do think we can learn positive lessons from the cynical remarks we hear, and then try to address the root issues that help create the cynical mindset.