Viewpoint -- A Case of Cynicism

Dec. 21, 2004
Could It Be Holding Back Your Company's Change?

Executives know that rapid organizational change is necessary for their companies to compete in the 21st century. While there are many obstacles to corporate transformation, what executives may not realize is that cynicism among your employees could be stifling even the best-made plans for change. Why are employees cynical about organizational change? Is it within their personalities to be cynical and executives must learn how to motivate the troops? Or do employees become cynical because of their work environment? These were questions that John P. Wanous set out to find answers to during his three-year research study of a midwestern manufacturing plant that makes components for the automotive industry. Wanous is a professor of management and human resources at Columbus-based Ohio State University. His study, Cynicism About Organizational Change, was published in the June edition of Group & Organization Management, a peer review, international scholarly journal. Cynicism about organizational change is a timely issue because most corporations are struggling to adapt to the pressures of breakneck changes driven by global competition, transient technology, and the exacting expectations of customers and shareholders. Wanous notes in his study that the newspaper comic strip Dilbert, as well as other media, are replete with examples of employee cynicism in companies that are led by ineffective executives. Moreover, cynicism also breeds negativity, an "attitude virus" which can create a stressful workplace, snuff innovation, and reduce productivity, says Gary S. Topchik, author of Managing Workplace Negativity (2000, AMACOM). Ultimately, Topchik argues, the bottom line suffers. In the Wanous study, manufacturing executives theorized that cynicism permeated the plant floor because it emanated from a small bunch of disenchanted employees who were negative about everything. In simple terms, management believed that cynics are born, not made. "We thought that [this] could be an explanation but it also could be a very convenient explanation to blame other people rather than their own actions," Wanous says. Likewise, employees blamed management for the plant's negative atmosphere. In order to find out who was on the mark, Wanous needed to gain the trust of employees who belonged to the United Auto Workers union. And that was no easy task because the union knew that management was footing the bill for this study. Plant management, with the blessing of its corporate parent, hired Wanous to measure the attitudes of employees, their thoughts and feelings about the plant culture and how it might be improved. "We had to work real hard to make sure that [the union] understood we were a neutral third party," recalls Wanous. "We would go to meetings at the union hall, and we always made sure we drove in American-made cars." Wanous and his research team apparently earned that trust. Of the plant's 2,000 employees, 52% to 69% participated in two surveys. Management and union leaders estimated the illiteracy rate among employees between 10% and 20%, and the plant's average daily absenteeism rate was 8%. While Wanous was conducting his interviews with workers he detected a common thread. He kept hearing phrases like: 'Things will never change around here,' 'This is just another program of the month.'" Wanous discovered that the plant's corporate parent was always developing new programs, a new quality program, a new safety program, a new employee-involvement program, and a new wellness program. These initiatives would be rolled out, and there would be some talk about how they would work. But for whatever reason, the programs dropped into some black hole, never heard or spoken of again. Through data collected from the study's second survey completed by 1,032 employees, Wanous determined 720 plant employees had low, moderate, and high levels of cynicism. But he also measured whether employees were cynical because of their personalities or if cynicism is more likely learned on the job. "There was a correlation between personality and cynicism but it wasn't a strong correlation," Wanous says. "We found that the environmental factors had a stronger relationship with creating cynical employees. What we found was that a lack of change leads to cynicism, a lack of [employee] participation leads to cynicism and ineffective leadership or management styles lead people to be cynical." Wanous suggests that executives can take practical steps to counter cynicism among employees by addressing two components, pessimism and dispositional attribution, or fingering the blame on someone or something. In regards to pessimism, executives need to make sure that all successful changes -- no matter how small -- are clearly publicized. Small wins of company change can help employees see the light at the end of the tunnel. Managing the blame game is more tricky, however, because years of research shows that people tend to blame others rather than the situation. Nevertheless, there are some actions that executives can explore. First, get them involved. The more you involve employees directly in the change process, the less they will place the blame on management because there is no "they" to blame. Second, pull no surprises. Wanous suggests that the less employees are surprised by management's actions, and if they understand the reasons behind them, employees will be able to see things from a management perspective. The only way to achieve this is through direct and frequent communications with all employees. Third, bring up the past. Although it's true that you cannot alter the past, it can still have a strong influence on the present and future in regards to employees placing the blame. Wanous suggests that if past failure was attributable to management mistakes, they should be acknowledged and fully discussed to retain or restore credibility. Fourth, make a sincere and serious effort to understand why your employees tend to blame management. "A good example of this was observed during our study," Wanous writes. "Top management decided to close the executive dining room to encourage all managers to spend more time with the hourly employees. However, managers tended to sit together in the cafeteria, which caused the hourly employees to attribute an attitude of superiority on the part of managers. Managers were completely unaware of this. They thought that they were just sitting with the people they knew best (other managers) and that their mere presence in the cafeteria was the correct signal to be sending to the rank-and-file." Peter Strozniak is an IndustryWeek associate editor based in Cleveland.

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