Quit Being a Cynic at Work. It’s Holding You Back. - Kanebridge News
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Quit Being a Cynic at Work. It’s Holding You Back.

There are ways to fight the tendency to see the worst in everyone

Mon, Jun 17, 2024 3:35pmGrey Clock 4 min

We don’t want to be friends with our co-workers . We don’t want to help out with that project. We don’t trust the CEO…or our boss…or that guy in accounting.

Have we taken our cynicism at work too far?

In some ways, our bad attitude makes sense. Many of us made work our church, only to end up laid off , burned out or underpaid. Now we check out, do less, gossip and snark.

It isn’t getting us anywhere good, according to Jamil Zaki , a Stanford University psychology professor who runs the school’s social neuroscience lab.

“Cynicism, if it were a pill, would really be a poison,” he says.

Zaki has spent years researching sunny concepts such as empathy and compassion. One of his studies, for example, found that giving away money activates a similar part of the brain as eating chocolate. His forthcoming book, “Hope for Cynics,” explores the rise of our darker sides, our belief that other people are selfish, greedy and dishonest.

Betrayed once, we practice what Zaki calls “pre-disappointment,” always assuming others will let us down. The mindset feels productive and cunning, like we’ll be able to protect ourselves. But Zaki says it can actually stunt our careers in the long run, and hurt our mental and physical health.

“By never trusting, cynics never lose,” he writes. “They also never win.”

He assures that you don’t have to become the company cheerleader, or even an optimist, to grow your faith in other people. You do have to take a chance on them, examining your own assumptions and suspending your conviction that you already know how this is going to turn out (not well).

While the approach might initially seem blasphemous to the more negative, sarcastic and skeptical among us—like, say, me—anyone can become less cynical , he says.

You might even find you like it.

How we got here

Once upon a time, Americans were less cynical, Zaki says. A longstanding survey from research organisation NORC at the University of Chicago, which has examined American attitudes since 1972, shows we used to trust each other more. Around the middle of the last century, many hummed along on the rosy glow of plum benefits, robust job security and the knowledge that the chief executive was making, say, 20 times a worker’s pay, instead of 200.

It isn’t that we never complained about work, but Zaki says we repaid our companies’ loyalty with commitment, as part of an unspoken covenant.

Today, that employee-employer pact can feel like a relic of a bygone era. Workers have swapped pensions and equity in their companies for more meagre benefits that put the risk and onus on individuals. Instead of reporting to paternalistic employers, many people now operate under tenuous contracts and gig work.

Some of us work from home in isolation or spend lonely days in the office trapped on back-to-back video calls. There’s less chitchat, less interaction.

“We don’t like people when they’re abstracted,” Zaki says, “but we love people who we actually know.”

Zaki understands why, given all this, we might scoff at the notion that our company is a family, or roll our eyes at the prospect of joining in forced fun at the office happy hour.

Sometimes, I suspect, we also adopt a toughness because we don’t want to look like we’re trying too hard, only to fail or be rejected. Maybe it stems from perfectionism , or anxiety , or insecurity after being exposed to everyone else’s highlight reel on social media for the past 15 years.

Fighting our own worst tendencies

It might seem like all the office snakes are scaling the ladder, but Zaki says studies show cynics’ earnings and leadership potential level off with time. To do good work and attain success, you have to build alliances and share information. Translation: You have to trust someone.

Cynics are prone to poor health, from depression to heart disease, he says, adding that at an organizational level, cynicism can lead to pervasive backstabbing, higher turnover and even corporate corruption.

Cynicism is also a self-fulfilling prophecy, he says. People often mirror how we treat them. Micromanage your team—surveilling them and wresting away their ability to make decisions—and they’ll become the slackers you think they are, doing the bare minimum and buying mouse jigglers to mask time away from their home computers.

“Cynics tell a story full of villains and end up living in it,” he writes.

Resisting cynicism’s pull starts with being open-minded. Examine the data of your life like a scientist would, he says, instead of jumping to conclusions, positive or negative. Think everyone at your job is out for themselves? Ask 10 colleagues for a favour, and see if anyone agrees to help. Convinced every conversation with a co-worker will be painful? Spend a day rating your interactions with them on a scale from 1 to 10.

Challenging your assumptions will leave you pleasantly surprised, Zaki promises, because people often rise to the occasion when we let them. You can start by doling out what you hope to receive. Try engaging in “positive gossip,” speaking highly of others. Take a leap of faith in someone, and do it obviously.

“I trust you,” a manager might say to her direct report. “I really think you can do this.”

Calibrating our hope

Could all this make us too soft? Rejecting cynicism doesn’t mean you can’t hold workers to high standards, Zaki says. Just don’t pit them against each other, with practices like stack rankings, where collaboration is discouraged as workers try to claw above each other on a scoreboard.

Your humor can still be irreverent, even biting, he adds, but jokes should ultimately bring people together or improve something.

“Snark, in the absence of any hope, kind of curdles,” he says.

And don’t be blindly optimistic, he adds. If leadership isn’t giving you any reason to have faith in them, don’t. Find another group to trust—maybe your small team or a union. Band together to provide a buffer to the daily stress of working in your organisation, or enact change by fighting for something better.

“We often underestimate how much influence we have,” he says. “Own that power.”


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The S&P 500 index has been crushing private-equity returns in the past year, and Blackstone ’s second-quarter results illustrate that trend.

As part of its earnings release early Thursday Blackstone said its corporate private-equity returns in the year ending in June were 11.3%. That compares with a 24.5% total return for the S&P 500.

In the prior year ending in June 2023, the S&P 500 topped Blackstone with a 19.4% return against 9.7% for the firm’s corporate private-equity business, which has $145 billion of assets and remains one of its most important areas along with real estate.

Blackstone is the leading alternatives firm with over $1 trillion in assets under management and has the largest market value of any public investment firm at more than $160 billion.

Driven by Nvidia , Microsoft , Apple , Amazon and other big technology stocks, the S&P 500 has handily topped most asset classes in the past several years.

Another sign of more difficult times for private equity came earlier this week from Calpers, the $503 billion California pension fund, when it reported it s preliminary returns for its fiscal year ending in June . Calpers is one of the first major endowments or pension funds to report results for the June fiscal year. undefined The pension fund, a major player in private equity, said its private-equity investments gained 10.9% net of fees—although that figure is lagged one quarter. Calpers’ public-equity investments were up 17.5% in the year ended June—its strongest asset class. Private equity remains a favorite of many pension funds and leading university endowments like those of Harvard and Yale. Their view is that private equity can beat public-market returns over the long term.

But the private-equity business has gotten tougher in recent years due to keen competition for deals, higher interest rates and a less receptive IPO market, which has made exits tougher.

And private-equity portfolios of firms like Blackstone look nothing like the S&P 500, given their investments in small to midsize companies.

Blackstone, for instance, bought a majority stake in Emerson’s climate technologies business last year and more recently purchased Tropical Smoothie, a franchiser of fast-casual cafes. It also holds a stake in Bumble, the publicly traded online dating site, and it’s an investor in actress Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine. Blackstone’s corporate private-equity business runs $145 billion and has 82 investments, according to the firm’s website.

Blackstone’s private-equity business has strong long-term returns including a gain of over 50% in the year ended in June 2021 when it handily topped the S&P 500 index.

But the S&P 500 index has become difficult to beat more recently and it’s dominated by some of the best companies in the world. It carries less risk than private equity, given the cash-rich balance sheets of its leading companies like Apple , Microsoft and Alphabet .

Private-equity firms, by contrast, often use considerable leverage to boost returns. Investors can get exposure to the S&P 500 through index funds that charge 0.1% or less in annual fees and with immediate liquidity.

A key risk with the S&P 500 is its vulnerability to a selloff in the leading tech firms that now make up over 40% of the index. The recent rotation into smaller companies illustrates that.

Blackstone shares gained 1.1% to $136.31 Thursday in the wake of its earnings news as investors focused on rising investment deployments and positive management comments on the firm’s outlook.

The firm’s nearly $40 billion of inflows and $34 billion of capital deployment during the second quarter marked “the highest level of investment activity in two years,” Chief Executive Officer Stephen Schwarzman said in a statement.

Citi analyst Christopher Allen wrote in a note to clients on Thursday that while Blackstone’s overall performance was mixed, the outlook appears to be improving given fund-raising and deployment trends.

Investors also were heartened by Blackstone President Jon Gray’s comments about a bottoming in commercial real estate and strong capital deployment in that area.

But ultimately, the game for Blackstone and its alternatives peers is about performance—particularly beating low-fee public investments like the S&P 500. That seems to be getting more difficult.