If our collective actions are well-intentioned, healthy debate and dissent should be encouraged
Jul 5, 2016
By Ian Hendry
Last week I received an email from a friend asking how Brits should vote in the referendum – stay or leave the EU. I did not pretend that I knew enough to provide an educated view.
However, predictions were suggesting that more and more Brits had become doubtful that the collective interests of the country were best served by the EU laws and regulations.
Suffice it to say that, as an HR professional, I know how difficult it can be to create HR policies and programs that are fair and equitable to a truly diverse workforce. Knowing that, I can only imagine how hard it must be to satisfy all 28 member states of the EU.
At its root then was the notion that the EU had become a bloated, unaccountable bureaucracy, run by technocrats, that was trying to centralize every industry and had run amok. The cynics argued that the great benefit of Britain being outside the EU would be the freedom to rescind these claustrophobic EU laws and regulations.
With the result now known, Winston Churchill’s great quote came to mind: "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” but let us believe that those 70 per cent who voted understand the choice they have made and the looming challenge of retrenchment.
Sadly, the other 30 per cent were not sufficiently interested in voting. So be it.
We have our own challenges with cynicism this side of the Atlantic too, without even resorting to commentary on the Clinton/Trump presidential race. One case in point happened this past week in Alberta. Apparently, a big placard of Premier Rachel Notley’s head was put up in the middle of a fairway and used for target practice.
Is Notley really the reason for the drop in oil prices? As Lawrence Martin of the Globe and Mail observed, “This was not amusing in the current climate when Notley has been the recipient of death threats, British MP Jo Cox was slayed and Quebec Premier Couillard was mistreated at a vigil for the victims of the Orlando shootings.”
Some have suggested we have already subconsciously accepted a culture of disrespect, and others have dubbed it “the age of unreason.”
The prevalence of cynicism in organizations was a focus of recent research that was presented to SCNetwork members earlier in June. Cynicism is defined as an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest. It often includes feelings such as skepticism, doubt, distrust, mistrust, suspicion and disbelief. Organizational cynicism is therefore the negative beliefs about an organization and part of the study was to determine the impact of employee cynicism on the hierarchy.
The importance of this research became clearer to me when I saw the results of the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer. A poll size of 33,000 individuals is worth noting, and it might not be surprising that almost one in three employees do not trust their employers. The lower an employee is in the hierarchy, the greater the inherent level of distrust, so is there a plausible reason for such a poor result?
If so, what should we be doing about it? Such levels unquestionably have a debilitating effect on organizational performance. However, on a more positive note, the research revealed that although some people are predisposed to being cynical, managers who provide skill development recognize accomplishments and give helpful performance feedback can minimize organizational cynicism.
The challenge for practitioners is our ability to separate cynicism from those employees who are genuinely inquisitive, and/or have constructive intent when questioning organizational decisions.
Clifford Geertz once said,” I don't feel that an atmosphere of debate and total disagreement and argument is such a bad thing. It makes for a vital and alive field.”
Just as the European Union and organizations are imperfect creations, let us openly acknowledge they are just that – imperfect. If motives are questionable, cynicism is warranted. However, if our collective actions are well-intentioned, healthy debate and dissent should be encouraged. As Vince Lombardi once said,” Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and senior vice-president and chief talent officer at Foresters in Toronto.