Leave Your Cynicism At The Door Please: it’s official, collaboration and cynics don’t mix

Machiavellian cynicism is bad – that is, if you are hoping to work with people who are collaborative. A research paper recently presented its findings following a longitudinal study investigating the impact of cynical beliefs on work life and income. In these findings researchers argued that “cynical individuals are more likely to avoid cooperation and trust or to overinvest in monitoring, control and other means of protection from potential exploitation”. They also concluded that cynics are less likely to ask for help and less likely to collaborate with others. That should not be too surprising to those who have come across people who are not that keen on collaboration. I certainly have seen my fair share of the cynical brigade.

“Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.”  ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

“Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.”
― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

The study also examined a range of factors that impact on cynical beliefs, and revealed that cynical individuals may avoid opportunities for collaboration because of their propensity for suspiciousness and fear of exploitation. I suspect most people may feel a little suspicious from time to time, but the idea here is how one feels ‘most’ of the time. This is a serious challenge for any manager who wants to enhance collaboration and reap the dividends that smart collaboration delivers.

The vital point to make here is to understand that, in the long run, cynical beliefs also impact on the financial wellbeing of a person. According to this research there is a strong link between a cynical belief system and economic drawbacks. But the critical factor is context. Not surprisingly, the link is found only in situations where a person is cynical despite the fact that most of the people they are surrounded by are actually trustworthy, honest and kind. This is very interesting for a number of reasons. Every manager should have a good insight into the team that is expected to collaborate, and if cynical beliefs are strongly represented in the group then a strategy for collaboration has to allow for remedial factors. I have observed that cynical people may demand more in terms of building trust, which in itself is a strong prerequisite for a good collaboration process and outcome. From that perspective, a good strategy should by default be very clear. Something that is not always done well. In other words, it is not enough to ask people to collaborate. They need to be engaged with very strong arguments and clear processes in place.

Perhaps the best part of this particular research is the cross cultural focus. The study examined cynical beliefs across cultures, which is important because we can’t really talk about collaboration without improving our understanding of people and the different cultural factors that shape us all. This is particularly critical when we look at inter organisational collaboration. The upshot of all of this is that what may seem like a simple thing and can be easily dismissed as just a personality trait or an attitude by some individuals, in fact can be the single most expensive obstacle to getting the collaboration right. Far from urging managers to avoid including cynical people into collaborative efforts, I do think that ignoring their impact is a mistake.

Read the research paper in full paper here


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