First Class Coach

My boss is very cynical and, I suspect, a misogynist. It's depressing working with him - he can always be relied on to put a downer on every suggestion I make.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Is there any point in trying to change him?

A: Cynics do a lot of damage in organisations. They regularly kill creativity and innovation, and their negativity about what is possible fosters the continuance of the status quo. In so doing, they perpetuate unsatisfactory results and are endlessly able to justify their prejudices - 'I told you it wouldn't work and, look, I was right'.

Cynicism is a lazy habit of mind, often born of past disappointments.

But as US journalist Sydney Harris pointed out, cynics doom themselves to bleak prospects for the rest of their lives: 'A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past; he is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future.'

At bottom, cynicism is often a form of self-protection, an armour designed to shield against life failing to deliver secretly longed-for results.

The armour may save face, but it does little to reduce the pain of failure or rejection.

It's important, though, to distinguish between cynicism and scepticism.

The sceptic is capable of being convinced, given the right evidence, and his or her questioning can be valuable in ensuring all the angles have been thought through.

There's good evidence that having a more positive frame of mind produces more positive results. Aim high and you have a chance of achieving something above and beyond the ordinary. Set your expectations low and you may fail to achieve even these modest goals. Realistic optimism tends to be a much more energising and empowering basic assumption.

If your boss is a genuine cynic, and a misogynist to boot, you may find it difficult to persuade him to shift position. He'll have built seemingly incontrovertible evidence that his negative stance is justified, so logic won't work. But this is not a reason for you to give up all attempts to move him to a more positive stance.

What you may not know is how aware your boss is of his habitual behaviour and whether anyone else has commented on it. He may have little insight into the impact he has on others. Giving him some data on his performance might help him realise he is over-using his negativity.

I've worked with a management that had one member like your boss - he was known as Eeyore by the rest of them, after the character in Winnie the Pooh who always saw the black cloud in front of the silver lining.

When the team were brave enough to discuss with him the impact of his cynical behaviour and to give this negative persona a name, it became easy to spot when he was doing it and say: 'Watch out, Eeyore's about.' This approach largely cured their colleague of his unproductive behaviour and led to a big improvement in the team's effectiveness.

The style in which you deliver this feedback is crucial. Since logic won't work, try humour. For example, you could have a conversation where you caricatured the two of you as characters from Mr Men, calling yourself Little Miss Sunshine and him Mr Grumpy.

You could mention the depressing effect his attitude is having on you and say you'd like to try a little experiment. He must go a whole day thinking only positively about things: never saying no but being allowed to add to suggestions only to improve them, rather than to destroy them.

If it's raining, he has to think of the benefit of the rain; if a proposal is too costly, he has to think of ways to justify the cost or to achieve the same result with less - he can't veto. Ideally, involve other members of the team in the challenge. At the end of the day, review together what was achieved and agree elements of the experiment to incorporate in normal working life. It may be too big a stretch to convert your boss from pessimistic cynic to realistic optimist, but you might persuade him to shift to a more productive position of 'expect the best, prepare for the worst'.

Misogyny is a different question, especially if it spills over from general disparagement into gender discrimination, which has been illegal for more than 30 years. But is he just unfriendly towards you or actively holding you back in your job? Check with male and female colleagues whether he behaves in the same way towards them. If he is stepping over the line into discrimination, mention it to your HR manager. Doing so could result in your boss being warned and might avoid a costly discrimination case later.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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