Cynics, Believers and Realistic Optimists in Cultural Evolution

perspectives Feb 08, 2018

In our work with organisational cultures, there is often deep cynicism regarding culture and change programs. The cynicism is frequently not without good reason, and when explored can contain valuable information regarding competing organisational commitments. Cynicism is often the result of a culture which has limited personal agency and autonomy, and organisations with a history of badly implemented change.

In a number of organisations we have been speaking with about creating safe to speak out cultures, cynicism has occurred due to a clear gap between what leaders say, and how they behave. Often the espoused message is “We intend to create a safe to speak out culture where all voices are heard”. Yet the response when people do speak out is often “You should have spoken about that differently”, or perspectives that don’t match the leaders are dismissed or ignored.

Opposing the cynics we often find “The Believers”, who perceive any challenge to the culture or change program or leaders as negativity. Believers can become evangelists, seeing cynicism, feedback or different perspectives as a negative force to be stamped out, rather than a perspective that could provide value.

We often hear stories of leaders using polarising language to talk about people who are not completely on board, labelling them as resistant, cynics or even haters. Language and rhetoric which creates a strong sense of “other” has been used effectively over history to create momentum towards a goal by creating a false image of an enemy (think Nazi Germany).

The problem is, this rhetoric is overly simplistic, ignoring the positive intention or genuine issues that may be a foundation for the cynic’s perspective. Shutting down the cynics without understanding their concerns can significantly reduce the ability of a group to grapple with a range of perspectives, engage with complexity or manage polarities. All of which are capabilities organisations need to develop, to remain successful and become more adaptive.

Similarities between believers and cynics

Believers and cynics are often those in the organisation most passionate about positive change, they just express their passion differently. Whilst their language and behaviour can appear contradictory, believers and cynics often have more in common than they realise.

Whether their passion is for better customer outcomes, a more positive working culture, or greater innovation, when engaged in open dialogue, believers and cynics often find a clear alignment of passion and intent.

In culture and leadership development programs, where exploratory and positive dialogue processes are used to explore areas of mutual concern, powerful coalitions and partnerships are formed between “believers” and “cynics” in ways that provide development for all people engaged.

Embracing the opposing perspective

To perceive cynicism as outright opposition, often means that we haven’t truly heard the “other” or developed the necessary self-awareness to be able to have empathy for, or interest in, other peoples perspectives.

In order to traverse adaptive challenges and successfully navigate complexity, people and organisations can benefit from the value of both the believer and cynic. When brought together, this unleashes the capacity for realistic optimism and passionate non-attachment.

If you read this article and notice the cynic or believer in yourself, actively engage with the “other” by taking the following steps:

  1. Understand what the positive intention is behind their words and behaviour. If in doubt – ask!
  2. Align and find common ground (what do we have in common that is important to both of us?) Examples might include better customer outcomes, more effective ways of working, greater congruence between espoused and lived values.
  3. Enquire into the value their perspective could bring to you and to the organisation
  4. Ask – if you were in their position, how might you feel, what might you do differently?
  5. Consider the potential consequences of not hearing the voices of the so-called cynics/believers
  6. Ask yourself, what valid points are they trying to get across?
  7. Listen to the values and needs under their words
  8. Ask yourself – how is your way of thinking and being enabling opposition to occur?

Cultivating a culture of realistic optimism

To cultivate the benefit of realistic optimism in your organisation:

  • Demonstrate ongoing commitment to learning from all voices
  • Create a culture and experiences where people have greater personal agency and responsibility
  • Create a context of common ground through aligning around an external purpose for why we need to hear each other
  • Find out what the believers and cynics have in common
  • Listen to and seek value in all voices in the organisation (unheard voices often become more extreme)
  • Use the term realistic optimist and share the advantages of developing this perspective
  • Learn to balance polarities (refer to Barry Johnsons work on polarity mapping for resources)

Underneath cynical and evangelistic voices lie positive intentions and useful perspectives. Rather than labelling people as cynics or believers, seeing and embracing the whole person along with their most positive potentials liberates these potentials in service of the organisation.

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