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Tackling corporate cynicism? Let’s walk a mile

Dealing with dysfunction, lack of trust at management level
culture, engagement, leadership
The team was divided, mistruths and miscommunication were driving people apart, relationships were toxic among the management team, and broken trust paved the way for suspicion and blame to bloom. Shutterstock

By Suanne Nielsen

Recently, I encountered dysfunction in one of my teams. It was simmering for some time but fully emerged following the sudden departure of an executive. 

The team was divided, mistruths and miscommunication were driving people apart, relationships were toxic among the management team, and broken trust paved the way for suspicion and blame to bloom.  A silo mentality had kicked in. None of this was conducive to my team’s productivity.

To address this challenge, I decided to conduct a culture survey. We used the Barrett Survey Instrument through which we asked people the three questions:

  • What are your personal values?
  • What values do you experience when you come to work?
  • What values would you experience if the organization/team was operating at its best?

I’ve written about it in the past here.

One of the criteria measured on the culture survey is “cultural entropy.” The last time we did this survey throughout the organization, our level of entropy was measured at 23 per cent. Which means employees spent nearly a quarter of their time at work bumping up against cultural obstacles. While this was a serious challenge, it wasn’t as damaging as what I was facing in this particular team.

This time, when we administered the cultural survey on my team of leaders – a membership team of 15 -  the level of cultural entropy rose to a whopping 67 per cent. This meant two-thirds of my team’s time was spent on unproductive work. Now we were facing a crisis.

We got into damage control mode right away and hired an expert to help us address the entropy through a team alignment session. First, she had to get underneath what was contributing to the low scores through a series of one-to-one interviews with the management team members.  Following the interviews, she summarized the themes that had emerged, punctuating it with quotes from the interviews. 

It was a dramatic moment when the management team walked around the room to see their words and others on large, poster-size documents on all of the walls in our large conference room.  No one talked for several moments.

Going into this session, my objectives were to have everyone acknowledge the level of dysfunction and lack of trust that was occurring, that we all had a role in contributing to it, and that the changes had to be made by us.

I began the session by dropping some of my guards. I shared personal and career stories which have led me to be the person I am today. In doing so, I busted a few myths for those who provided initial feedback about me being a cold, and distant person.  It was very hard for me personally to open myself up to this level of vulnerability, but through it I broke down barriers.

The exercise gave us no room to hide. Part of the team revealed their assumption that another part of the team had colluded to dispose the VP; some felt they were being shunned; others believed they were being improperly cast. What we said and what others said about us was up on the wall for all to see. This brought on the realisation that there are two sides to every story.

During the team session, we also did a role-playing exercise around empathy which had a significant impact on all of us. We broke into groups of two. One member from each pair was asked to state a problem they were currently facing with a colleague. Their partner would then ask them a set of common questions.

The next step was for the duo to switch roles, where the person answering questions would become the discordant colleague. I was paired up with someone who described to me a toxic relationship she had with an un-named colleague in our company. She was clearly angry with him. But her jaw dropped when I switched places with her and she became the one she was angry with. That’s when she realised that her object of anger was probably as frustrated with her as she was with him. 

This exercise just reiterates the adage “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” If an assumption is to be made, let it be a positive one.

Mostly, cynicism occurs in pockets within organizations either due to absent leadership or a change that effects a particular pocket. But when you see cynicism creep through out an organization, the negative impact is huge on the execution of the company’s business plan or its customer service.

When you walk into an organization and see employees taking sides, or hushing up when you walk into a room, or gossiping, or undermining each other, you know you’re breeding discontent. The ultimate cost to the organization is that talented people leave.

Some say that the degree of corporate cynicism is generational. That younger employees tend to be more cynical than the seniors in the organization. I don’t necessarily think that applies because no matter what the age, a talented and skilled workforce won’t work in an environment where levels of cultural entropy are high. A talented employee votes with their feet. The first sign of distrust is enough for them to leave.

I would say that HR folks and organizations have tools available to them to test the level of trust. The ones that are most widely used are engagement surveys. These are used on an annual or a semi-annual basis. A common question on these engagement surveys is “Do you trust the organization’s management to take the organization forward?” or “Does your manager create a trusting and open environment?”

Such questions are asked particularly during organizational changes like when a new CEO arrives, or a senior executive is leaving, or a change in strategy without full explanation – transitions that rest of the employees don’t understand or don’t foresee.

It’s normal for people to ask questions and be cynical when they aren’t provided proper information, and there is a lack of transparency from the top-down. This also leads to misconceptions and assumptions that may not be grounded in truth. It’s the tone at the top that determines the degree of cynicism or lack of trust within an organization.

The rising demand for transparency and trust is not an organizational one, it’s more societal. If you think about where our society is today, people, in general, are raising questions about institutions that perhaps would have been unquestionable a few decades back. More people are willing to speak up now than before. In an engagement survey, for instance, employees will now ask more questions or raise more concerns about their workplace and about management.

As I said, there are two sides to every story. At SCNetwork, we are presenting an organizational cynicism smackdown at our June event, where you will hear two academics debate two CHROs on the topic of knowledge hiding and corporate cynicism. You can find the event’s registration details and speaker info at

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Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and global chief administration officer at Foresters Financial in Toronto. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Suanne and do not necessarily reflect the official position(s) or opinion(s) of SCNetwork members or Foresters. For more information about the SCNetwork, visit
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