Burnout is a workplace syndrome characterized by three core attributes: 1) energy depletion or exhaustion, 2) a cynical or negative attitude toward one’s job, and 3) reduced professional efficacy. That second attribute, workplace cynicism, may be the least-understood aspect of burnout in part because of its complexity. In contrast to exhaustion and diminished efficacy, whose causes and effects are relatively straightforward, cynicism can be caused by a number of workplace factors, and it can be expressed in a broad range of emotional states and behaviors. Cynicism is dangerous to both individual and organizational health and can also spread rapidly throughout teams through a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion.” It’s possible to improve even deep-seated cynicism — and better yet, to prevent it from infecting your organization in the first place. The author offers strategies to help reverse existing cynicism and to create an anti-cynical culture at work.
Jason* began executive coaching with me just as his organization was coming out of a year-end crunch time, which had been exacerbated by the sudden departure of his team lead. Things had gotten “shockingly ugly” at work, he told me, with flaring tempers, power struggles, and meetings that devolved into name-calling and public character assassinations. Upper management didn’t intervene, choosing to put off “personnel issues” until after everyone hit their year-end goals. In addition to his increased workload, Jason had taken it upon himself to try to act as a peacekeeper between his stressed-out colleagues, only to find himself caught in the crossfire. Feeling hurt, angry, and unsupported, he began to distance himself from his coworkers and increasingly found himself dreading work. By the time he reached out to me for coaching, he was demoralized, disengaged, and burned out.