On Leadership, Skepticism and Cynicism

While facilitating a session earlier this year, I was greeting the staff members as they arrived, and there he was:  The group’s cynic.

He proudly announced when I greeted him, “Hi, I am the cynic…”

Oh My…

As he was ignoring my request to fill out a name tag, his body language and demeanor warned me that he would not be engaging during the session. His colleagues, looking a bit embarrassed, quickly greeted me, thanked me for coming and asked me about the medicine wheel activity we were about to start in the next few minutes.

Fortunately, the cynic kept to himself through the session and was not abusive or openly critical. While he didn’t engage in the activities and mostly fell asleep on his chair, he didn’t disrupt others, as is often the case with cynics.

As you may know, there is usually a skeptic or cynic in every group.

Sometimes, in large groups, there are a few. One thing that I appreciated in this case was the cynic’s honesty. He accepted being a cynic. Many times, I encounter cynics who disguise themselves as skeptics and I find that the difference is very important.

Skeptic or Cynic: What’s the Difference?

Steve Pavlina, a respected expert on this topic, explains the difference on his personal blog:

Self-help cynics are those who’ve become totally disillusioned with anything associated to personal development. They feel the entire field is a sham populated by scammers and charlatans. Cynics don’t subscribe to the idea that people can actually change by conscious intent. They are who they are, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

As opposed to a cynic, a skeptic is doubtful but still open-minded and logical enough to consider new input. Skeptics primarily seek truth through the process of asking questions. Sometimes the real truth cannot be pinned down so easily, so the skeptic must learn to live with ambiguity and uncertainty much of the time.

For the cynic, however, the mere existence of doubt is immediate cause for labeling an entire field as erroneous. If you try to engage a cynic about his/her beliefs, you’ll usually receive some emotional and very close-minded arguments but little logic.


Defining Terms

cyn·ic [sin-ik] noun

1. a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view. ~ Dictionary.com

I find that many cynics are often bullies that don’t see any problem with their verbal attacks on others. If someone doesn’t like what they are saying, that is the other person’s problem.

skep·tic [skep-tik] noun

1. a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual. ~ Dictionary.com

While skeptics are reserved about their opinions and very “matter of fact,” they tend to be very respectful and courteous.


Case In Point

While leading teams and proactively using organizational development tools over the past 16 years, I have worked with a few skeptics and some cynics. In my experience, they tend to be very different.

To illustrate the differences in their behavior and how they affect the people they work with, I developed two fictional characters based on skeptics and cynics I have managed and work with over the years.

Kendra and Listo

Kendra is what I call a deliberate thinker and describes herself as a skeptic when it comes to organizational development models and tools. She believes in logic and has a gift for asking detailed questions that help her understand the different variables of any situation.

Although she will reserve her judgement on many issues and mostly keeps to herself, her co-workers enjoy working with her. She is highly intelligent and her performance often meets or exceeds the expectations of her co-workers and management.

Kendra extends trust to others naturally. She believes that others can be trusted until they give her a reason not to trust them. Even when others break her trust, Kendra is respectful and does not actively try to put others down either directly or behind their back. Kendra mostly works on her assignments and continuously develops her considerable skills and strengths.

Listo also calls himself a skeptic as well when it comes to organization development. He is also highly intelligent and enjoys debating with others on many topics to ensure others know where he stands on an issue. Trust is not something Listo offers to others. In his mind, others have to earn his trust, which tends to be difficult for others to do.

Listo is capable of doing great work and at times will deliver great results. However, others find working with him exhausting because of the ongoing debates and his constant mockery of others. Listo does not see any problems with his attitude and derision of his colleagues.

When others have the courage to approach him with feedback, he quickly tells them not to “go there” with him. He thinks feedback and organization development is a waste of time and those who believe in that sort of thing are ignorant fools who think they can change others.

Which one is the skeptic? Which one is the cynic?

Being Polite

Cynicism is not a license to bully others. Work incivility and bullying appear to be on the rise and it can’t be tolerated.

As Anil Saxena points out in his article on work incivility, these behaviors negatively affect performance and it appears this is an international problem.

As a leader, it is important to understand whether you have a Kendra or a Listo on your staff. I understand if skeptics or cynics don’t “buy-in” when it comes to organization development models, but this is no excuse or license to be rude to others.

Work incivility must not be tolerated by the work culture as it impedes performance and makes an already challenging environment more difficult.

Do you have Listo or a Kendra in your team? Are the Listos of the world a minority or majority in your team? Is the influence of the Listos in your team positive or negative?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Al Gonzalez is Founding Partner at GIVE Leadership
He helps clients develop trust and leverage the strengths of all team members
Email | LinkedIn |  Twitter | Web

Image Sources: rgoldfarb.files.wordpress.com

One response to “On Leadership, Skepticism and Cynicism

  1. Pingback: Understanding Leadership Lessons from the 6th Grade « Linked 2 Leadership·

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