Barking up the wrong tree

HR is right to believe cynicism is a major threat to working life, but remember: cynics have never been a barrel of laughs

To work in human resources in 2004 is to know that most of the things you say will be met with widespread, and often hurtful, cynicism. People are our greatest asset. Pur-lease. We want everyone to maximise their potential. Ha. We value diversity. Like impetigo. HR acts as a business partner to the line. How sweet.

Of course, cynics will say HR has only itself to blame. The profession stands accused of perverting the relationship between words and the world, of mouthing sentiments it cannot possibly hope to honour, of crass manipulation, of devious deceit, of jarring and excessive use of complete and utter bullshit.

According to our cynic, when HR professionals complain of ‘cynicism’, what they really mean is that they are struggling to convince others about the value of their work – a most cynical abuse of the word. The cynic will scoff that it is nothing short of a cynic’s duty to see through such fibs (in so far as cynics believe in duties).

The HR practitioner, he will say, is just as much a symbol of our cynical age as that other self-righteous, but sentimental, professional – the journalist. Picture the journalist: the quick tear of recreational grief streaking down a face contorted in sneering contempt. And now picture the HR practitioner: the nailed-on smile masking the black heart of the corporate identity. Who is worse? Both trade in cheap emotion. Both are hypocrites.

This is the cynic’s game – a reductio ad absurdum of caricature and low motive. The complaint of cynicism is always an easy target for cynics. But if we acknowledge that the cynic’s charge against HR is not without force, perhaps we can clear the way for a far more substantial point: cynicism poisons working life.

Conventional wisdom usually portrays cynicism as being a problem for employers because it acts as a restraint on their actions. According to Roffey Park’s 2004 Management Agenda, cynicism eats away at commitment, motivation and job satisfaction, and limits the degree of change that organisations are able to achieve.

This is true enough as far as it goes. Yet somehow it gets nowhere near the nature of the threat posed by cynicism. Exactly the same grumbles could be said about absenteeism, or low skills, or weak leadership, or dozens of other technical hindrances to the day-to-day business of managing people. Cynicism does not belong in the same bracket. Cynicism is infinitely worse.

It is also important to distinguish cynicism from another term derived from a Greek sect: scepticism. The sceptic understands what flexible, slippery things words can be, and knows better than to take them at face value. Sceptics recognise that organisations have to live in the world of trade-offs and conflicting ends – be they in the private, public or voluntary sector. Plans rarely go smoothly. There are tensions between commitments; likable personalities collide; events conspire to twist the best of intentions. Sceptics often tend to have rather high ideals – and to dislike seeing them betrayed. But the sceptic is not so po-faced they cannot enjoy a quiet smirk at the dazzling contradictions between what organisations say and what they do.

Again, true cynicism is something else. Cynicism is the instinctive belief that all organisations are fundamentally corrupt, and all motives are fundamentally self-serving. Cynicism is death to all co-operative activity, of which work is the great exemplar. Whereas trust between colleagues is necessary to do anything efficiently, cynicism means everyone must invest energy in watching their backs and looking after number one. If the cynic is praised, they see an ulterior motive; if criticised, they feel validated in their view of the pointlessness of work.

Cynicism corrodes the desire to act honourably and to do a good job until everyone thinks everyone else is up to no good, and only a handful of unusual individuals are able to resist becoming cynical themselves. The cynic is trapped at the ‘grumpy teenager’ stage of evolution: everywhere they look they see people lying. They are destined never to make it to the next stage of development – the discovery that not all motives are impure.

If that sounds lighthearted, it is really not meant to be. For the cynic’s endgame is a chilling one. Think for a moment of one of the great literary portraits of the cynic at work. In The Fall, Albert Camus has his character, Jean Baptiste Clamence, a respected lawyer with a reputation for adopting noble causes, give up his career in anguish. “After prolonged research on myself, I brought out the fundamental duplicity of the human being,” he reflects. “Then I realised as a result of delving in my memory that modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress.”

Now apply that attitude to working life in general: no-one – no nurse, manager, teacher, engineer, or priest – does what they do for the pleasure of helping others and the belief that their work is worthwhile; no-one has any simple motivations at all. The ghastliness of that thought is an indication of how unrealistic true cynicism actually is.

Denouncing cynicism is probably about as effective as denouncing terrorism. Nevertheless, like terrorism, it ought to be denounced. Cynicism is the most convenient rationale for apathy. Cynicism breeds fatigue and futility and despair. The cynic has been hollowed-out by boredom. And the cynic is so very, very boring.

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