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Shut down a cynic

Contain the fallout from smart alecks

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in Leaders & Managers,Office Management

Left unchecked, cynicism can lower morale and infect a workplace with lazy, indifferent employees. Smart managers find ways to put a muzzle on cynics and keep them from acting up.

Use these techniques to take the bite out of a habitually sarcastic staffer:

Bring in third parties. Cynics may need a safe outlet to unleash their caustic commentary. You can designate a trusted colleague to serve as a cynic’s sounding board. Get them together every so often to have lunch—ostensibly to review some business matter. Ideally, the third party should be perceived as fair and objective, with no vested interest in the cynic’s career or work product. If cynics can periodically vent in private, then they’ll be less apt to cause problems the rest of the time.

Don’t acknowledge cynicism. Some cynics want attention, especially from the boss. So they make outrageous or stinging remarks to get it. Don’t fall into that trap. When you hear a cynical remark, consider ignoring it and moving on to another subject. If you’re in a team setting, don’t even make eye contact with the perpetrator. When cynics realize you won’t fall for the bait, they might tone down the show of “attitude.”

Avoid labels. Don’t stamp an individual as “cynical” and then talk about him behind his back. You don’t want the individual to know that you refer to him in that way. It can make you look dismissive of the person’s strengths and breed his resentment. One manager tells us he once said to a co-worker, “Don’t listen to Charlie, he’s just a cynic at heart.” While the manager didn’t even mean it in an overly critical tone, Charlie overheard it and problems erupted. It’s better to go directly to the individual and express your concern about specific remarks, focusing on how the comments can derail the team’s concentration and productivity.

Demand evidence. Cynics often toss out inappropriate comments or harsh judgments without any support. Ask for evidence in a neutral tone. Say, “I don’t agree. On what facts do you base your opinion?”

Don’t play fixer. If you’re growing frustrated putting up with a cynic, don’t make him your own personal reclamation project. Trying to change permanently someone else’s behavior is often futile. At best, you can praise the desired behavior in an effort to reinforce it. But if you can’t soften up a hard-edged individual, accept it and move on.

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