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8 Ways Self-Serving Leaders Fuel Employee Cynicism

Corporate leaders bewildered by employee disengagement should try seeing workplace politics through their team's eyes.
8 Ways Self-Serving Leaders Fuel Employee Cynicism
Image credit: FangXiaNuo | Getty Images

Cynicism in this country is at epidemic levels. If cynicism was an infectious disease, the Centers for Disease Control would call out the National Guard to impose countrywide quarantines and marshal law to keep it from spreading.

Is that merely click-bait hyperbole? I don’t think so.

According to the Macmillan Dictionary, cynicism is defined as, “…the belief that people care only about themselves and are not sincere or honest…the belief that things will not be successful or useful…the attitude or behavior of someone who is willing to let other people be harmed in order to get advantage.”

You don't have to look very far or hard to see that definition is thriving across the news, educational institutions, social media, local and federal government as well as business.

No organization is immune to the potential dangers from cynicism, which are legion, and include: lack of trust in authority; communication breakdowns; organizational misalignment; squandered resources; stakeholder and customer dissatisfaction; operational inefficiencies as well as stifling culture -- just to name a few.

It comes as no surprise that researchers have found one of the most prolific breeding grounds of cynicism is the workplace. The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 48 percent of the general population does not trust the institution of “business,” and according to Deloitte's most recent Ethics & Workplace Survey, a third of employed Americans plan to leave their current job for another when economic conditions improve.

Within that group of Deloitte respondents, 48 percent cited loss of trust in their employer as their primary motivation to leave.

Perhaps even more telling, the same Deloitte research found that 65 percent of Fortune 1000 executives concerned about a looming employee exodus admit that lack of trust is a driver of voluntary turnover. So, two-thirds of executives already know employees are disappointed, disillusioned and cynical; however, what they may not know is that leaders are often the cause and can be the cure.

Here are eight sources or seeds of cynicism that leaders may be unwittingly sowing within their organization, hurting its future growth.

1. Double standards between management and employees.

The “Golden Parachute” for incompetent leaders in Corporate America is a near cliché nowadays because it’s widespread. Pay raises, salaries and perks are lavished on top execs while rank-and-file employees face reductions in force and cuts to wages and benefits. The motivation of those doing the work is crushed. Nobody likes a double standard.

Related: 13 Signs of a Disengaged Employee (Infographic)

2. "Cover you’re a$$" culture.

This type of toxicity starts at the top and trickles down, in large part because the higher you climb the corporate ladder the fewer places there are to hide. If you’ve worked in business for any stretch of time you’ve seen leaders whose preferred leadership style is defer, deflect and deny --benefitting no one other than the aforementioned CYA artist.

3. Form vs. substance.

Every company I’ve ever worked at had a couple of these in the executive ranks. Incompetent posers with a degree in razzle dazzle but only a rudimentary understanding of the business. All glamour, no grit -- it’s tough for anyone to support that type of leader.

Related: Unhappy Workers Cost the U.S. Up to $550 Billion a Year (Infographic)

4. Lack of prioritization perspective.

As business continues to struggle with competition, productivity challenges and globalization it seems that, "Everything is an A1 priority...." Unfortunately when everything needs to get done now, nothing gets done on time. Morale suffers as a result.

5. Lack of feedback and follow-up from senior executives.

The Deloitte survey found that nearly half of cynical, disenfranchised employees blamed lack of transparent communication as a key motivator to leave their job. A bi-directional feedback loop is critical for the survival of nearly every species, especially Corporatus Employeetus.

Related: 3 Reasons the C-Suite Should Take Employee Disengagement Seriously

6. Micromanagement.

The only thing more de-motivating than a boss who’s MIA when it comes to feedback and communication, is a boss who’s needlessly in your knickers every day. A micromanager can singlehandedly kill the three psychological needs we each have: autonomy, relatedness and competency.  

7. Information hoarding.

Within the technology era information is power, currency and control. Leaders who intentionally and unintentionally hoard it hurt their teams, divisions and organizations. Not much to cheer about when you’re in an information vacuum.

Related: How Poor Management Creates Zombie Employees (Infographic)

8. Reluctance to learn.

Great leaders make it their business to be lifelong learners. Unfortunately, very few business leaders are great at learning. They tend to rely on favored solutions and success formulas that worked before but which haven’t kept pace with current thinking and innovation. Personal development for their employees is a distant afterthought, which drives discouragement among the employee base.

all is not lost. In the same way that cynicism starts with the behaviors and actions of dysfunctional leaders, it's spread can be slowed and reversed through the integrity and competency of authentic leaders.