Cutting at the root of growing cynicism

Is America growing more cynical? Four years ago, Boston University professor Donald L. Kanter, in a comparative survey of European and American women, found the former significantly more willing to view the world as a cold, uncaring, and hypocritical place. That fact, as he told me at the time, gave him scant comfort, given the levels of cynicism he also found in America.

Now comes his latest effort: an examination of cynicism in the American workplace. In a recent paper based on a national telephone sample of 850 Americans, he and co-author Philip H. Mirvis examine the attitudes about mankind that employees bring to their jobs. Their poll asked respondents to comment on large and life-shaping questions: how suspicious they were of others' motives, how isolated they felt, how much they valued hard work for its own sake, and so forth.

Their conclusion is sobering. ``Jaundiced life views,'' write Professors Kanter and Mirvis, ``are held by about one-third of the population.'' These are the people who see the world growing colder and public figures caring less. Not surprisingly, their attitudes toward the workplace mirror their views of the world. ``For them,'' the authors write, ``management is less competent, communication is less complete, and recognition is less apparent'' than for more ``upbeat'' workers.

We've all run into the lunchroom cynic -- every organization, it seems, has one. But did we realize there were so many? Who are they? According to this survey, they are grouped by:

Age. ``Workers 35 and older,'' say the authors, ``report the highest commitment to the traditional work ethic and the lowest level of cynicism.'' By contrast, they add that the high level of cynicism reported by the youngest age group (24 and under) represents one of the ``new trends in the work force.''

Education. In general, cynicism declines as education increases. The one exception: high school graduates with only a few years in college. ``These groups,'' the authors say, ``aspire to more meaningful work. That they do not find it contributes to their lower levels of involvement on the job.''

Race. Reporting higher levels of cynicism than whites, minority workers also tend to trust management less and experience less job satisfaction. ``The lack of opportunities for minorities, . . . coupled with the recent economic downturn and changes in national policy, all contribute to lower life and work attitudes for minorities in the sample,'' the authors say.

So should an employer try to hire a work force of yea-sayers? Not at all, say the authors, who distinguish sharply between skepticism and cynicism. The former, they write, ``is healthy, probing, and often creative.'' But cynics, prone to be ``rumor mongers,'' are ``paranoiac hipsters or inside dopesters'' who scorn communications from management as ``designed to deceive and manipulate a less powerful, more gullible group.''

In the end, the value of this study is that it quantifies what has until now been simply a gut feeling: that, as Kanter and Mirvis say, ``an `us against them' syndrome may be surfacing in America, particularly among the younger, less educated members of the work force.'' Rather than condemn such workers, the authors point out that managers must recognize the problem and give special attention to overcoming it. They identify several ways -- including a recasting of internal communications and a redefinit ion of corporate culture -- to combat the cynic's sneer with sound and well-presented information.

That's a help. But as that arch-skeptic Henry David Thoreau once wrote, ``There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.'' The root, here, is the question of motives. The cynic, seeing hidden agendas everywhere, distrusts all motives.

That should give us a clue. If, as a culture, we're finding that our cynical mercury is rising, it may be time to inquire not about what we're saying to each other, nor even how we're saying it. The real question is, Why are we saying it? That gets to motives. The belief that no one is asking that question -- that few managers really care to examine their motives -- is held by one-third of the work force. That's too many to ignore. One wa y to undermine cynicism is to prove them wrong.

A Monday column

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