Barriers to Change: Cynicism

The biggest threat cynicism poses is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if people are convinced change can't happen, it won't

You announce a new change, only to be greeted by eye rolls. Scoffs. Shrugs. It couldn’t be more surprising—you know the team has asked for change; that they’re frustrated by the status quo. So why aren’t they embracing the change?

The biggest threat cynicism poses is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You may be dealing with change cynicism. It’s the belief that change won’t occur, and that the people responsible for leading change—i.e., you, the leaders—are making changes that will only benefit them. It occurs due to:

  • Past failures to change: leaders have a history of promising big change or an exciting new vision, and failing to meet it 
  • Distrust in leadership: leaders put their interests over the team, or are perceived as lazy or incompetent
  • Defensive response: people may have put considerable time and energy into prior efforts, only to be disappointed by the outcome—they don’t want to be hurt again

It’s important to note, however, that cynicism isn’t the same as skepticism. Skeptics are open to change even if they think it’s unlikely, based on past evidence of failed change. But they don’t have the same distrust in leadership as cynics—you still have an opportunity to prove your commitment to change. 

Cynicism is often deeply ingrained within organizations, but to start undoing its legacy, you have to focus on rebuilding trust in leaders, and giving the rest of the organization greater say in the change:

  • Be cautious about labeling cynics. First, you may find it tempting to label anyone who resists change as a cynic—but in their minds, they have perfectly valid reasons for opposing your changes. Before writing them off, take time to investigate their opposition: what have they experienced that we can really learn from during this change? What could we do to convince them this time really is different?
  • Increase transparency. Share as much information as possible in advance and give individuals more time to adjust to changes. If you don’t have answers to a change, it’s ok to let them know you don’t know—in the absence of information, people will make up their own stories. Above all, don’t promise to be more open and then take it back, as this will only increase cynicism.
  • Involve them in decision making. If they’re involved in making decisions and directing the change, it means that decisions literally can’t be made by leaders for their own benefit. It also encourages them to support the decision and make sure it succeeds: after all, if it turns out they’ve made the wrong decision, it will be their fault, not just their leaders. 
  • Focus on building evidence. No amount of arguing or sharing the potential benefits of change will outweigh all the evidence of failed change—so don’t try to double down on the benefits until you have real evidence that change is happening within the organization, and real people to speak enthusiastically about that change. Furthermore, research has found cynicism increased when new change projects disrupted existing change projects—so make sure you’ve made substantial progress before moving on to your next initiative.
  • Spend your energy elsewhere. It’s human nature to focus on the negative, so you may be inclined to spend time arguing with cynics in an attempt to win them over. Realistically, though, it may not be possible to change everyone’s minds. The best you can do in this situation is to listen to them to find out why change failed in the past, and use that to prevent future errors. 
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Barriers to Change: Cynicism
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