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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

6 Strategies for Managing a Cynical Team

They say that it’s an employee’s nature to whine. Management doesn’t have a clue. Why doesn’t anyone listen? They can’t seriously expect this to work, right?

It’s relatively easy to be a disgruntled, distrusting, or cynical employee (just roll your eyes in meetings, do things begrudgingly, and complain to your co-workers), but if your job is to manage said employee—or a whole team of them—then you really have your work cut out for you.

Here are some pointers to help.

1. Listen

You don’t need to hear every single moan and whine, but all of these cynical responses are often the effect of a deeper cause.

Really listening to your team’s point of view and where they think the issues lie not only gives you clues about what actually needs to be fixed from the people who are right there on the coal-face, but it demonstrates that you respect their opinion and want to understand their point of view.

This isn’t lip service, it’s listening and then acting on what’s been heard. It’s tough for cynicism to flourish when people see that happen.

2. Offer Choice

Being in a team where decisions only ever cascade down the company hierarchy creates an environment that’s ripe for damaging employee confidence and breeding cynicism.

People are motivated more by having autonomy and control than by taking orders, so give your team members room to make good choices for themselves.

When an aggressive deadline’s just landed, don’t just tell them how it’s going to be, ask for their ideas on how to meet it. When you hit a thorny problem, offer some options and let your team decide which way to go. Or when there’s an opportunity to improve how something’s done, give your team space not just to make choices, but to learn from them.

3. Park the Clichés

Nothing gets those cynical juices flowing quicker than corporate BS, and the perception is that all of that corporate language masks what’s actually happening. People hear the “singing from the same song sheet,” “aligning on goals,” and “needing 110%” and know that it’s all just watered-down, sugar-coated, or politically-engineered rhetoric rather than real insight or genuine trust.

What happened to talking to team members as individuals rather than resources? When did people-pleasing rhetoric become the corporate language? And why should your employees be anything but cynical when all they hear is gobbledygook?

Park the clichés.

4. ’Fess Up

Brutal honesty can be surprising when you work in an organization. It’s not something you encounter every day, and its absence can create the perfect environment for distrust.

So there are times when admitting you don’t have all the answers and that you need others’ help to turn things around will cut through cynicism and galvanize people like no top-down directive can.

Confess to not having all the answers, admit what you don’t know, own up to errors, and invite help.

5. Don’t Mistake Cynicism for Pragmatism

Hearing a team member tell you “no” or that your approach isn’t going to work is tough to handle, with options ranging from rolling over to “my way or the highway.” But it can be useful to check where this negativity might be coming from.

People often want to do the right thing rather than just moan, and sometimes that right thing is telling a hard truth based on the facts. Sometimes it’s not from a cynical place of self-interest or seen-it-all-before pessimism, but from a practical and pragmatic place of insight and experience. Big difference.

6. Work for Your Team

Cynicism swells when managers sit in their ivory tower ordering their employees to do their bidding, and even in a less dictatorial structure there’s room for distrust and pessimism from the bottom toward the top. It’s the nature of human beings in a hierarchy.

But what if you forget about the notion that a team works for the manager and instead, spin it around? A manager’s job is to create an environment in which their team can do great work, so in this way the manager needs to work for the team to get that environment in place.

It’s hard to be snide when a team sees day after day after day that you have their best interests at heart and want each and every one of them to do great work.

Photo of thumbs down courtesy of Shutterstock.