Overcoming cynicism: A management challenge


According to Gallup’s polls, Americans have never been less trusting of institutions. Although the culprits are too vast to name, today’s bleak environment for trust has a direct impact on leaders. Events outside the workplace shape employees’ mindsets and influence their propensity to trust co-workers and managers.

Because the social and political events that form a person’s worldview lie outside a manager’s control; it is all the more crucial to understand these shifting attitudes, their ability to affect corporate culture, and ultimately, customer experiences.

The dearth of societal trust

Since 1973, Gallup has polled American confidence levels in a variety of U.S. institutions. In June of 2012, many of these hit record lows:

  • Trust in media (fair, balanced, and accurate reporting): 40%  (9/21/2012)
  • Confidence in church or organized religion: 44%  (6/20/2012)
  • Confidence in public schools: 29%  (6/20/2012)
  • Confidence in banks: 21%  (6/20/2012)
  • Confidence in Congress: 13%  (6/20/2012)

More impressively, for the first time since 2009, unemployment no longer held the first or second position in Gallup’s “most important problem” list. As of January 14, 2013, those slots went to the federal budget deficit and government dysfunction, reflecting public fatigue with uncertainty.

In response to Gallup’s polling results from last summer, Thomas J. Leeper tried to make sense of plummeting societal sentiment in his article for Psychology Today entitled, In Nothing We Trust.  Mr. Leeper wisely avoided the pitfall of identifying a singular cause for these high levels of distrust.

The patterns of declining trust appear to be too widespread and too consistent across institutions to be explained by the particular behavior of any given institution.

The manager’s dilemma

Potentially the most sobering aspect of declining societal trust is its impact on well-meaning and trustworthy individuals, especially those in a position of leadership.  As it turns out, when people are deeply cynical, they are more likely to doubt information, particularly when that information is provided by a source that can benefit from persuasion.

According to London-based communications agency Rufus Leonard, 92% of today’s consumers trust advice on utilities and financial services firms from friends, yet only 3% trust information provided directly from the company.

Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, explained this phenomenon in his book, Predictably Irrational. In one experiment, Mr. Ariely asked people if a series of straightforward statements, such as “the sun is yellow” and “a camel is bigger than a dog” were true or false. One hundred percent of the participants answered these basic questions correctly.

Next, the researchers conducted the experiment with a new group but attributed the simple statements to either a large corporation or a political party (institutions people mistrust). This time, participants were more skeptical of a simple statement like “the sun is yellow,” and hedged their answers accordingly: “Sure, it’s yellow, but it also has red spots on the surface and sometimes it looks white so it’s not just yellow.”

Ariely and his team conducted these experiments to assess American’s distrust of information associated with a brand. The results confirmed their suspicions. Ariely explained,

By starting from a highly suspicious point of view, owing to the origin of the statement, the level of distrust was so high that it even influenced our participants’ ability to identify obviously correct statements.

Implications for business leaders

These test results, paired with extremely high levels of public cynicism, are a valuable wake-up call for business leaders who underestimate the changing mindset of their employee population. While employees may look the same on the outside, their biases and perceptions are changing along with societal attitudes. Those changes affect how they interpret a leader’s messages, and how they relay that information back to customers.

Understanding societal distrust will help leaders connect more effectively with their employees and build high-performing teams.




2 responses to “Overcoming cynicism: A management challenge”

  1. A great article Kellie and some really important questions. I think one of the reasons that social is dominating in the way that it is, is because people have lost faith in our institutions and prefer to deal with people they know, whether personally or virtually.

    It’s difficult to get the right balance between open-mindedness and discernment, you need both in the workplace and to be conscious of your biases.

    Thanks for this. I’ve added myself to the mailing list. I like the focus and the quality of the writing.

  2. I have been a part of organizations who BRED cynicism by blithely mouthing platitudes about the customer, associates, and community values, while following practices that undermined all three.

    One huge retailer I worked at, in particular, spent huge amounts of money on building community through the company web site, posters, store events, and so on.

    And yet…

    With the exception of a very small minority, their managers exhibited disrespect and whatever the opposite of empathy is toward their associates.

    Aspirational expressions by management must be matched by behavior toward employees or cynicism will be the result.

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