Someone confided in me this week that they were looking for a job where there are no politics, back-stabbing and toxicity to which I replied, “Better rethink looking for a job, then!”   The words had barely left my mouth before I winced, thinking is this the cynicism that I can expect from my older self. I am indeed getting older, as I became a sexagenarian recently, which got me thinking ‘if I am developing scepticism, what else is likely to creep up?’   In personality terms, the evidence suggests that the older I get, the more closed-minded I am likely to become. Apparently older folks are less willing to see alternative perspectives or explore new experiences. I guess that’s the essence of being stuck in your ways and comes from the fact that you have seen some stuff and done a lot and therefore you are not as idealistic or naive as when you are younger.  But cynicism? I hadn’t counted on that, besides – I don’t see myself like that, so I was wondering where these thoughts about work had come from and when my thoughts of work had changed to thinking of it as that ‘toxic, malicious and political environment’.   I do know that when I think like that it influences my behaviour. Here I was telling someone a negative story about work and we know that negative stories often become self-fulfilling prophecies; but not only that:   I am a recruiter, for goodness’s sake! I can’t be thinking that what I do involves sending people metaphorically into the lion’s den!

Why did I even say what I did? Perhaps it is because I deal with a lot of people experiencing burnout caused by chronic job stress usually related to toxicity, politics and unethical behaviour. Typically, these people exhibit signs of cynicism along with hopelessness; they develop a negative attitude towards their work or the people they work with:  Always hearing about what’s not right at work has distorted my perception and blocked me from being fully aware and appreciative of all the good things about the workplace. 

Cynicism need not be a bad thing – it depends on how you use it.  An attitude of distrust and pessimism towards other people and society in general often stems from unresolved emotions or insecurities that we project onto others or the world. It can also be influenced by the media, the culture, or the environment that we are exposed to. In some ways cynicism acts as a defence mechanism protecting us from disappointment, hurt, or vulnerability; but it also prevents us from experiencing joy, connection, or growth. It’s obvious that that can be quite harmful to your wellbeing, making you less healthy, less happy, less successful and less respected by others.  On the flip side cynicism, a healthy dose of it at least, can be beneficial to your wellbeing as it can help you free yourself from illusions, habits and dogmas that limit your potential as well as making you more open-minded and curios rather than closed-minded and dismissive.

Cynical thoughts allowed to fester unchecked are really where the danger lies. I was lucky that in this instance I became immediately aware of my sceptical thinking; in a way I was practicing mindfulness – paying attention to the present moment with awareness and acceptance. Mindfulness helps us to notice our cynical thoughts and feelings without judging them or identifying with them. Asking ‘Well that’s interesting – where is that coming from or what it that all about?’ can help us to see things more clearly and objectively, without being influenced by our biases or expectations. 

To get clarity on whether I am really becoming a cynical old man I had to examine what I really thought. What is going on when I find myself thinking that work is a ‘backstabbing, political and toxic’ environment? Why is this happening? And how can I have more influence over these thoughts and emotions going forward?

I might say work is all these things, and to a certain extent some of it may be representative, but it is not the full picture. It’s not a thought that I should react to without thinking.  In fact, if I want to be part of changing what is wrong in my life, job, country, world or where and whatever, I need to have access to my best clarity, confidence, and creativity to deal with challenges, whether they be toxicity or anything else. To do this I really need an understanding of what the true ‘why’ is. In other words, I need the ability to access my clearest thoughts and most purposeful behaviours to create a work environment that is healthier, more productive and where the culture is a springboard to meaning, creativity and purpose, not to burnout and poor mental health. In other words, be part of the solution instead of adding to the problem.

So, I have shifted my thinking from ‘Work is a political backstabbing, toxic environment’ and adapting and surrendering to looking for the good and what I can do to bring it about. My new thought is ‘There is all of that negativity but I can be an agent for change, an influencer, someone with adaptability who changes my own behaviour, that of others and, inevitably, the system.’

That may sound unrealistic or illogical but consider this astute quote from Irish dramatist, George Bernard Shaw, who said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself:   Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”!