Do you trust someone until they prove that you shouldn’t, or do you have a natural cynicism until someone proves they are trust worthy?
That basic question frames much of how we conduct our lives, both personal and professional. Missing out on opportunities due to a lack of trust often don’t register because we don’t miss what we don’t know. Being betrayed however is personal and raw, and this tends to tip us towards being cynical rather than trusting.
Obviously an overly cynical outlook on life hinders our professional life in many ways, especially in the modern workplace where open communication and frequent knowledge sharing are expected to be the norm.
A new study by Chia-Jung Tsay from Harvard Business School sets out to shed some light on how cynicism forms in the workplace.
The study identifies various things that often trigger a cynical outlook:
- Naivety – people new to negotiating more often believe that the process is always competitive and are therefore likely to act cynically towards their ‘opponent’
- Knowledge of your foe – if you’re negotiating with a well known expert in their field then you are more likely to be suspicious of their offers
- Pick your friends wisely – they found that if you have someone on your team who has a shady reputation, that reputation will be applied to the whole team
- Is information freely available? – if those in power have access to information that the other side don’t then there is an expectation that they will misuse that ‘power’.
They warn us that the consequence is that “cynicism regarding others’ motivations may become a self-fulfilling prophecy that leaves both sides worse off than would otherwise be the case.”
However the study finishes with some advice on how to avoid the cynicism trap:
- Do unto others – if you act with integrity yourself it increases the likelihood that the other party will too
- Open up information – provide all parties with access to the information required
- Familiarity breeds understanding – if you deal with each other frequently then it breeds understanding and breaks down cynicism
- Walk a mile in their shoes – understanding the other participants motivations and perspectives to cultivate win-win situations