Those seeking more formal leadership roles will inevitably encounter cynicism. We live in cynical times, and there is distrust of those in leadership positions. If you anticipate it and have strategies for coping with it, leaders can learn to turn the cynics into believers.
There’s a powerful scene in this season’s Mad Men. The main character, Don Draper, is finally caught in an act of marital infidelity by his teenage daughter. Leading up to that, Draper performs a noble act: He helps a neighbor’s son escape being sent to the Vietnam War by manipulating an office competitor to pull strings to get the unfortunate lad into the much safer Air National Guard. The viewers are left to question whether Draper actually cared about the boy’s plight, or if he simply saw it as an opportunity to earn the gratitude of the boy’s mother, with whom he had had a prior affair—now ended, but which he longed to rekindle. In fact, his altruistic act of caring allows him to rekindle it, intentionally or not, thus leading to his daughter’s feelings of betrayal. In the pivotal moment, his neighbor and friend Arnold comes with the son to formally thank Draper—a scene witnessed by the daughter, who only hours earlier saw her father cuckold this man. Arnold, in an emotional moment, heaps compliments on Draper, testifying to the greatness of his supposedly selfless act. Unable to bear it any longer, Draper’s daughter Sally cries out, “You make me sick,” while everyone else looks on in shock and bewilderment.
The Dilbert Phenomenon
By those with whom he works, Don Draper, the ad executive and firm partner, is perceived as a leader. He inspires others to do their best work. In a crisis, others look to him for an answer. He’s decisive, creative, and successful. Yet much of his fictional existence reflects society’s cynical attitude toward leaders. In the end, as the scene suggests, those we look to for leadership are not authentic, nor can they be trusted. They are only out for themselves, and if they happen to hurt, deceive, or humiliate others as they strive to get what they want, so be it. In a world so cynical about its leaders, what can leaders do to regain trust? Leadership cynics are particularly abundant in higher education. Rather than become cynics themselves, good leaders will strive to learn new skills that may help them to overcome what two leadership experts, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, referred to as the Dilbert Phenomenon. They used the vastly popular comic strip as a metaphor for workplace cynicism, noting that “Dilbert is nothing if not your quintessential cynic when it comes to today’s workplace and management.” Reflecting the persisting challenge of the Dilbert Phenomenon, Kouzes and Posner (K&P) first shared their ideas nearly 10 years ago. That speaks volumes about the growth and continuance of societal cynicism about leaders.
There’s no telling exactly what turns people into leadership cynics, but a troublesome relationship with a bad boss is an often-cited factor. A boss who treats employees badly can do serious damage by forever changing their relationship with leaders, and it’s the relationship that makes the difference. K & P believe that leadership, at its most fundamental level, is a relationship between a leader and followers. If leaders fail to deliver on his or her followers’ expectations, the relationship fails to develop. Workplace cynics primary focus becomes keeping their jobs in order to collect a paycheck—or figuring out ways to avoid doing their work. The boss becomes a target for ridicule, anger, and disrespect. Then leaders wonder why they lack the ability to motivate these staff. K & P’s research led them to identify a set of expectations leaders needed to fulfill to gain followers’ trust and loyalty—the antidote to the Dilbert Phenomenon. Be honest, forward looking, and inspiring. Together these qualities give leaders the essential credibility needed for real relationships. While it’s a good start, K & P believed that there was more to overcoming the cynicism that resulted from exposure to bad leadership and a damaged trust.
Reversing Leadership Cynicism
Since they likened workplace cynicism to a quickly spreading virus, K & P offered their six-step system leaders could use to cure the cynics.
- Who are you? : A key to credibility is knowing who you are and what you stand for. It gets back to the fundamentals of having a set of values that guides your behavior. Be consistent in communicating your beliefs and values. Mixed messages and signals weaken credibility.
- Do What You Say You Will Do: This is the bedrock of trust, and leaders are frequently reminded to have consistent words and actions.
- Listen: It always sound easy, yet is hard to do. It’s the key to having insights into followers and understanding their needs. Engage in a conversation where you learn what others value.
- Build a Community: To avoid the spread of cynicism in the workplace, leaders must work to get everyone working towards the same vision. Leaders are an integral part of the community. When they stand outside of it or, even worse, seeking to control it, it weakens their credibility.
- Enable others: Credible leaders are open to sharing authority with others and allowing them to be part of the change process. By inviting their followers to take on leadership roles, confident leaders give everyone a stake in the success or failure of projects.
- Learn continuously: Here’s another reason why leaders need to always be learning—to demonstrate their awareness of what all staff are going through, and to offer compassion when needed. We’re all going to fail at some point. Leaders need to be a part of it, and to do what they can to right the wrongs—and to learn from the mistakes and improve.
Realize the Limitations
Most librarians who take on leadership roles, particularly as administrators, are glad to do so. They enjoy their work, and believe their vision will make a difference for their organizations and community members. Realizing some staff may doubt your sincerity and intentions can be discouraging. Not taking it personally is a challenge, but know that some individuals simply have, for whatever reason, no tolerance for administrators. Successful leaders gain skill at working with the cynics, and may win over a few. These same leaders realize the limitations of the situation, and set their expectations and strategies for change accordingly. K & P’s six-step system is a good start as a cure for workplace cynicism, but it will likely take more than that. Library leaders need to discover what works best for them to honestly communicate their passion, and hopefully infect the organization with an enthusiasm for positive change that can win over even the most cynical of library workers. Just know that it takes time. K & P said it best: “The credibility foundation is built brick by brick, stone by stone. And as each new fragment is secured, the support on which we can erect the hopes and dreams of the future is gradually built.” It’s up to each library leader to build the foundation.