How do you overcome cynicism in an environment determined to maintain it?
You overcome a toxic environment by walking out the door. Unless you happen to be a powerful person in the organization, it is not your fault that the environment is cynical, broken, dysfunctional, toxic, demented, twisted or incompetent. Managers and executives are paid a great deal more than the average employee and the main thing that comes with that pay grade is accountability. If the place depresses you, look upwards: the people in power make it this way. If nothing changes, it is no accident. It’s uncommon for people in power to be motivated to make big changes since they like being in power and change creates risk.
On a personal level, cynicism is for cowards. To be alive in this mostly dead universe is a miracle. To be born in a time and a country with clean running water, electricity and public schools is another. To be able to read, write and think well enough to complain coherently is a third. When it comes down to it, cynics are simply not paying attention.
Progress might be improbable, but low odds are what we’ve been working with all along. Do the thought exercise: if you had to time travel to the past, what year would you pick? If you do your homework I bet you’ll discover that the year you are in, as terrible you might see it, is better in most ways than any other so far. I’m not saying it’s great, or good, but if it sucks the least we can also say it’s the best we have, at least so far.
While I am all for skepticism, and by that I mean the challenging of assumptions, I am an unrepentant optimist about the opportunities we have, simply because we are alive. We can do almost anything. The problem is most of the interesting things take significant effort to do and it’s far easier to be cynical, not try, blame others and take false pride in complaining than to put effort into the uncertainties of trying to change things.
Cognitive bias wires us for denial and avoidance. It’s not easy to keep your eyes open but that is the only way progress is possible. History tells us progress can happen but is never likely. It is never the default and not something we get for free. In the worst of all cases I’d rather be Sisyphus walking up that hill every day, thinking, pondering, trying, learning, than the nameless guy at the bottom of the hill doing nothing for all eternity and whining about it.
If you do have an ally, talk to them. Come up with a plan. Aim for small wins and use them to draw others to your cause. You may need to do most of the work at first, but their support to defend what you do, and provisioning resources, may be enough to convince peers to join in.
If you don’t have an ally, make a friend. Who do you get along with in your world that you can share your point of view with? Maybe they see something you don’t. Outsiders can’t see everything insiders can and vice-versa. If you have no friends, read. You will find friends in our histories of people who felt like you do and did something about it.
Even if you are powerful, you can only change a culture one person at a time. See how to fix a team for advice on how to lead change. All change starts small. It must be grown, not constructed.
If you have no power, but have the choice, there is no shame in leaving a situation. It’s brave to quit in our culture if it’s for the right reasons. Only by leaving a bad situation do you give yourself the opportunity to create a better one.
“In this very real world, good doesn’t drive out evil. Evil doesn’t drive out good. But the energetic displaces the passive.” – William Bernbach