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Guarding Against Cynicism
March 31, 2014 at 11:07 pm #181906
Getting things done in government is hard. Really hard. Funding gets canceled. Executives do not welcome new ideas from subordinates. Outdated legislation limits policy innovation. It’s difficult to fire ineffective employees. The list goes on and on.
To make matters worse, sequestration, wage freezes, and the government shutdown have left many public servants frustrated, bitter, and feeling unappreciated. Some government employees argue that there are so many factors making it difficult to achieve positive outcomes that those who really want to make a difference inevitably get jaded and cynical.
Despite all these negative factors, I refuse to believe that cynicism is inevitable for government employees and managers. And we all need to guard against it.
The Impact of Cynicism
Cynics often try to justify their negativity by claiming that they “used to care too much” but were disappointed too many times. They usually describe themselves as “realists,” and some even wear their cynicism like a badge of honor. The problem is that once you decide that it is impossible to get anything meaningful done, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t–you are right.”
Who is going to put their heart into something big that they already “know” is going to fail? And who is going to follow a manager or executive who talks that way? Cynicism is a form of learned helplessness that keeps you down–and drags others down with you. And its impact is magnified greatly if the cynicism is coming from the boss.
So how do we guard against burning out or becoming jaded and cynical?
We have all experienced set-backs and disappointments. When it has happened to me, picking myself up, learning from the experience and then trying to find some new way forward has been absolutely critical. Is that difficult? Gosh yes. But I am unwilling to give up hope and I am unwilling to stop trying.
The recognition that it is frustrating and difficult to get things done in government was one of the things that prompted me to create GovLeaders.org in 2002. It is essential that government managers cultivate the patience and perseverance required to weather the frustrations they will inevitably face. My favorite part of the site is the Stories section, which features many inspiring stories of public sector leaders who succeeded in bringing about positive change.
In “Tips for Change Agents,” I discuss a variety of strategies for persevering over the long haul. Many of them can help develop resilience, such as:
- Being clear about your long-term objective;
- Choosing to lead;
- Developing a network;
- Finding opportunities for small wins;
- Keeping a fresh perspective so you never stop asking “Why?”;
- Being creative about tactics when you hit an obstacle; and
- Maintaining your optimism.
We all experience failures, hardships, and other setbacks during our careers. Such events are key turning points, and how we respond can determine whether we derail or grow and flourish as leaders. In his superb book Leadership and the Art of Struggle, Steve Snyder describes the most common kinds of struggles and provides examples of leaders who came through the experience stronger. He includes several reflective exercises to help leaders remain grounded and make adjustments as required.
Another excellent resource is the book Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You, by Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba. It includes a wealth of case studies and simple exercises that can help anyone learn the thought processes that foster resilience.
We need leaders in government who have the resilience to bounce back—repeatedly–from adversity. We must truly believe that our teams can make a difference. And we must create a positive work environment where our employees feel connected to the mission, are learning and growing, and believe that their ideas matter.
None of this is easy. But when we do these things we have a much greater chance of achieving positive outcomes for the American people.
(This article was originally posted at GovLeaders.org)
April 2, 2014 at 1:27 pm #181910
Right on. It’s hard enough to keep your chin up when you are constantly pummeled by the public AND your own management becomes part of the problem. You have to maintain an ‘insurgent’ perspective to keep the fight up for what you know is right and still get things done. One other suggestion I would add is that at the end of each day go to your ‘quiet place’ and take a moment to reflect on what happened during the day that added to the progress of whatever you are working on. The other side of that coin is to be thankful when something doesn’t go wrong…thankfulness is a powerful self-motivator – sometimes it is the smallest of things that make the difference about whether or not you will have the wherewithal to continue the fight.
Dr. Mark Goulston, M.D. (author of Just Listen) offers a great perspective in an article in the Huffington Post – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-goulston-md/calling-all-cynics_b_268462.html.
April 2, 2014 at 11:34 pm #181908
Those are great points, Gary! Reflection is a powerful tool for continuous learning and making sense of our experiences. That’s definitely a key strategy for building resilience. And appreciating small wins can go a long way in providing a sense of progress, which can do a lot to keep one motivated and ready for the next challenge.
And thanks for the article recommendation. I’m going to start reading his book Just Listen tonight.
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