COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Many managers dismiss employee cynicism about company policies as the griping of a few "bad apples" -- workers with bad attitudes who will complain no matter what.

But most cynicism doesn't come from employees with sour dispositions, according to researchers at Ohio State University.

A study of 757 workers at a Midwestern manufacturing plant found that cynical employees were no more likely to have negative personality traits than their non-cynical co-workers.

"We believe that cynical workers are usually made, not born," says John Wanous, co-author of the study and a professor of management and human resources at Ohio State.

"Employees learn to be cynical when organizations continually fail to succeed at planned changes, or if they don't publicize their success at change."

For example, employees could become cynical when a company lays off employees to help improve its finances, but then produces no evidence of improved profitability.

The study also found that hourly workers were more likely to be cynical than salaried workers. However, cynicism was more

harmful to the job satisfaction and commitment of salaried employees.

Wanous conducted the study with Arnon Reichers, an associate professor of management and human resources, and James Austin, an assistant professor of psychology, both at Ohio State. Their research was published in Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings 1994.

For the study, workers completed questionnaires which measured their levels of cynicism, their emotional state at work, job satisfaction and commitment and motivation.

Cynical employees were those who said they were pessimistic that conditions would improve at the plant, and who blamed management for the situation.

The researchers also asked workers how often they felt negative emotions at work, such as sadness, worry, anger and depression. They were trying to determine if people who were generally negative at work were also more likely to be cynical, Reichers said. There was no such evidence.

"That indicates that cynicism about organizational change is something employees learn through bad experiences, and not a personality trait," she said.

Other results of the study:

_ As expected, cynical workers had lower levels of job satisfaction and commitment to the company.

_ Hourly workers had higher levels of cynicism than salaried employees, possibly because hourly workers have less information about the company's management decisions, Reichers said. "Salaried workers may know that a failed plan resulted from a bad economic climate, or some factor outside of management's control. But hourly workers don't usually know that. In the absence of real information, they may be more likely to blame management."

_ But cynicism hurt salaried workers' job satisfaction and commitment more than it did hourly workers'. That may be because salaried employees feel more of a personal investment in their job, so cynicism causes more personal anguish.

_ Employee cynicism can be so poisonous to morale that it colors their beliefs about all aspects of the company. For example, at the plant studied, some employees were paid on a piece rate system in which they received an equal amount for each piece they produced. But cynical employees were more likely to say that this objectively equitable pay system was unfair to them. "Cynics seem to view nearly everything about a company in a bad light," Wanous said.

_ The good news is that even cynical workers expressed some willingness to make attempts for positive change in the workplace, Reichers said. "They're still willing on an individual level to make changes on things they can control. But their faith in the overall organization is minimal."

Rampant cynicism can create a spiraling effect that harms the chances of future change, Reichers said.

"If there is a history of failed initiatives, employees may become so cynical that future attempts are essentially doomed to failure," she said. "Cynicism about organizational change becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy."

The solution is for companies to be honest and open to their employees about both their successes and failures, the researchers said.

"When plans fail, management needs to give credible and verifiable reasons for the failure to employees, " Wanous said. "If management made a mistake, then say so.

Managers need to talk about their successes and even partial successes as well, according to Wanous. Many times, companies may announce a new policy or program with great fanfare, but then never tell employees that it succeeded. Employees may just assume these plans failed.

"Ignorance breeds cynicism in employees," Wanous said.

Back to Archive
Go to Current Month News Research Stories
Go to Current Month Newsfeature Stories
Go to Current Month News Cancer Report Stories

Contact: John Wanous, (614) 292-4591

Arnon Reichers, (614) 292-0737.

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457