Cynics Among Us

by Jo Anne Nelson on February 22, 2010

I recently read an article about Pat McGuire, the President of Trinity Washington University in the District of Columbia (click here to read the article). The article focuses on Ms. McGuire’s long tenure—20 years—and commitment to saving and transforming the school. On the brink of failure when she took over, it is now one of the most successful urban education centers in the U.S., serving a disadvantaged student population. It is a compelling story on many levels, but one aspect in particular caught my attention.

In 1995, a group of alumnae decided that McGuire was taking the University in the wrong direction. They had several complaints, and “lamented that the school was “adapting to contemporary society.” They called for her resignation. Several years earlier, a group of alumnae and students were successful in ousting a President because they disagreed with the path she was taking. Because they had been successful in the past, I am sure they thought they would achieve their goal. This time, they failed.

What made the difference? Strong leadership at all levels of the organization.

We work with many organizations to help them transform their cultures to high performing cultures. During this process, there is always a point where the cynics voice their dissent loud and clear. For many of them, they do not like change. They want things to remain the way they always have been. For others, they distrust the motives of those leading the change. Whatever the cause, they actively work to undermine the process for all.

When this occurs, every person in the organization has a choice to make. Will I allow the cynics to undermine the process and keep us where we are? Or will I choose to be a leader and take action that will support positive change? High performance cultures choose the path of leadership.

Does this mean that I am not able to express concerns I may have about the path we are taking? Not at all. High performance cultures and teams express concerns in a constructive way and have healthy debate. But, once a decision has been made, we align behind the team leader and move forward to achieve our goals.

In high performance cultures, there is no room for cynics that actively work to undermine the progress of the team and organization.

Here are three steps you can take in the face of cynicism:

  1. If this is the first time you have heard someone voice cynicism, ask questions. Why do they believe things won’t change? Why don’t they trust leadership? If they are not voicing their concerns in an appropriate forum, ask them why they are not speaking up. Encourage them to have healthy debate. Cite examples of where you have seen success, or where those who are leading the change appear to be genuine in their commitment.
  2. If you are hearing the same, or similar, conversation again, acknowledge their concerns but say that you’ve had the conversation with them before. Given that, you now have a concern that they are not taking the actions they need to move forward with the organization. If you are comfortable doing so, offer to help them. If not, recommend someone they can talk to for help and guidance.
  3. If you continue to hear the same type of conversation, stop the conversation. You don’t have to be rude, but you can say that you have heard their concerns and are committed to making positive changes in support of the vision for the future. Then excuse yourself.

A few cynics can stop change in its tracks. Successful change is dependent upon many factors, but ultimately it is a personal choice. We choose to commit to change and take the actions needed to support it, or we don’t. If we choose not to, it is likely that change will happen without us.

What choice will you make?

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: