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Engaging the cynic: A challenge worth the effort

Engaging the cynic: A challenge worth the effort



I manage an extremely talented person who is draining the energy out of meetings and is a drag on everyone's innovation, because he shreds others ideas and is aloof and pessimistic. I want to get him involved and tap his experience. What should I do?


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Beneath their arrogant or detached facades, cynics tend to possess extraordinary insight, focus, and imagination. When they can channel their talents toward a higher purpose, rather than protecting their turf or attacking others, reformed cynics become innovative contributors.

Deal with it head on

Trying to appease or negotiate with a cynic is usually futile. Instead, be direct, succinct, and calm when meeting with him or her. Make sure all your comments are accurate and sincere, and avoid any judgments or accusatory remarks that could be taken personally.

Provide a spotlight

Most cynics yearn for recognition as masters in their fields and have strong ideals they want others to value. While it may be tempting to do battle with them and "cut them down to size," the better approach is to acknowledge and appreciate their gifts. Listen to their viewpoint and eventually cynics will begin to trust you. You can then start working on softening their approach to others.

Create a challenge

Play to the cynic's intelligence by challenging him or her to figure out tough problems that "no one else has been able to crack." Discuss possibilities and ask for recommendation or offer a small number of specific choices, that lets them make the choice and get "the win."

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Demand accountability

Many cynics will dodge responsibility, blaming others or the ineptness of "the system." Somebody else has all the power. Don't buy into this; get the cynic to focus on what he controls and insist on explicit, measurable agreements – exactly what he will do, and by when. Get it in writing.

Use a hammer if necessary

If the cynic fails to respond to softer approaches, be specific about unacceptable behaviour. For example: "You spent most of this morning's meeting with your arms crossed, looking out the window. In my opinion, your comments, body language and tone of voice distracted us from our goal of brainstorming new options for solving the problem."

Then be specific about the behaviour you expect. Stay truthful, fair and explicit about your wants. For example: "When we're meeting as a team, I expect you to express interest in others' ideas, while offering your own insights and options about strategies and actions. When we're dealing with tough problems or sensitive relationships, I expect your enthusiastic participation."

Lastly, get a commitment: "Will you agree to do this?"

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Get to the core need

When the cynic falls into excuses, blaming and rhetoric, cut to the core: "What do you really want for yourself?" The cynic will often deflect this question, offering wants related to the team or others ("I want the accounting manager to relax the budgets"). Keep asking the question until you get a meaningful, personal desire from the cynic.

Frequently, the cynic's core need will have something to do with being respected or appreciated, something like, "How about a little respect for the years I've invested here? Maybe some acknowledgment that I really do know what I'm talking about, that my ideas are valued." Then, brainstorm on what healthy respect would look like.

Once past the cynics' crusty exteriors, you'll invariably find they are eager to be invited to channel their abilities and share their insights in collaboration with others.

Executive coaches Jim Warner and Kaley Klemp are co-authors of The Drama-Free Office: A Guide to Healthy Collaboration With Your Team, Co-workers and Boss.

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