Many leaders I work with perceive their cynical clinicians as a problem, when in fact they are a blessing. In this article, I discuss why – after highly engaged clinicians – cynical clinicians are the next best people to have on your team.
3 Types of Resisters
Resisters in the workplace can basically be categorized into 3 types. I call them the 3 C’s:
- Cynicals – These are workers who openly complain about issues and are thought to be negative. They generally deliver results, though not necessarily in a manner that’s most effective.
- Complacents – These are the silent resisters. They generally feel negative about issues or change but don’t express it and may
sabotage efforts behind closed doors and with passive-aggressive
- Checked out – These are individuals who are indifferent
because they’re emotionally disconnected; basically they could
care less about issues in the workplace.
When thinking about where these people fit on the continuum of engagement, people typically think about them like this:
The truth, however, it is closer to this:
Contrary to popular belief, cynicism is actually a demonstration of
engagement. The fact that a person is expending energy to actively
complain means they care. It’s a sign they’re engaged, just not in the way we
would like them to be.
Knowing that cynicals are engaged, our task then is to figure out how to
channel all that engagement into more productive expressions. Nurturing
this resister group is crucial for the welfare of your entire team. If you can
channel their energy towards active engagement, they can be a leverage point
for moving the other two resister groups up the continuum.
Cynicism is Made and Not Born
Cynical workers are not just a bunch of bad apples who complain all the time
as most of us have thought. Instead, cynicism is an organizational
phenomenon produced by certain types of organizations. In other words,
cynicism is made and not born.
There’s quite a bit of research on organizational cynicism showing that it’s
produced in environments where workers
- perceive they have little opportunity to provide input into decisions
that affect their work, and where
- they’ve experienced many workplace changes they deem unsuccessful
If we accept the idea that organizational approaches cause the cynicism we
see, then the way to address it is through organizational approaches, and not
by attempts to fix individuals who complain or are cynical.
This is a HUGE mindset shift!
It is encouraging to note that cynical people can be redirected fairly easily.
At its root, cynicism and the complaints that go along with it are an outward
expression of someone who wishes things could be different.
Fortunately, leaders have the most influence over worker perceptions and
leading organizational change, so there is a lot a leader can do to redirect
cynical clinician seeming discontent.
To lay the foundation for influencing this group, instead of avoiding them,
lean in. Get interested knowing that many of them are cynical, because they
feel their work has been a process of selling out on things they care about. As
the famous management guru Stephen Covey said,
Seek first to understand, then to be understood
Steps for Moving Cynical Clinicians from Ineffective Engagement
towards Effective Engagement
Meet with your cynical clinicians and learn about their hopes and dreams as
well as their pain points and fears. Taking the time to know personal aspects
such as these will give you insights into their motivations. The more you
understand their motivations, the more you’ll be able to influence
perceptions and frame work initiatives in a way that tie to what is important
To illustrate, instead of saying, “We need to implement a new medication
order process because it will save the hospital money” or “…because it’s a
mandate from hospital administration,” reframe your statement and tie it to
what you heard in your discussions with your cynical clinicians: “I’ve heard
from many of you that you worry about making errors with the medication
administration process we currently have. This new process will alleviate
your fears because it is designed to reduce the chance of you making an
Next, gradually involve them in work improvement activities. Ask them to do
one small task that would prove hard to refuse, like giving input on a
Then, provide positive reinforcement for that involvement like
acknowledging their contribution in a public meeting or sending a thank you
Once this small positive pattern has been established, you can then ask for
another small act of participation. And then another. Each time increasing
the amount of their involvement, because each small win progressively
builds emotional leverage for saying yes to the next ask for participation.
Reiterate these steps with all your cynical clinicians and watch
them evolve into your strongest allies for change.
Caring for your cynical clinicians goes a long way to decrease organizational
cynicism and creates an environment that fosters joy and active engagement