Skeptical ≠ Cynical

skep·ti·cal

[skep-ti-kuhl]

adjective

1. inclined to skepticism; having doubt: a skeptical young woman.
2. showing doubt: a skeptical smile.
3. denying or questioning the tenets of a religion: a skeptical approach to the nature of miracles.

cyn·i·cal

[sin-i-kuhl]

adjective

1. distrusting or disparaging the motives of others; like or characteristic of a cynic.
2. showing contempt for accepted standards of honesty or morality by one’s actions, especially by actions that exploit the scruples of others.
3. bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic.

The distinction is subtle but important. One implies the critical application of reason; the other implies negativity and bitchiness. Both traits are pervasive in our culture; one is healthy and valuable, the other is poison.

KarneadesA healthy dose of skepticism is not just acceptable; it is vital. Our world abounds with silly bullshit and the yes-men who keep it flowing; sometimes all it takes is one candid skeptic to alert the emperor that he’s not wearing clothes. If your boss is good he will eventually come to appreciate your candor; if he is not good or if you are simply wrong (which you may well be), then at least you will have provided input. It is your duty to do so.

I’m not saying that you should go around contradicting orders. There is a right way and a wrong way to apply healthy skepticism. The right way is to unemotionally and professionally make your opinion known, in a setting and manner which does not undermine the authority of your boss, but reinforces it. If your objective opinion is dismissed, as it may well be, it is then your duty to execute brilliantly. There is no in-between. Half-assing or slow-rolling a plan because you don’t agree with it is passive-aggressive, which is the technical term for pathetic.

Skepticism and Cynicism often come packaged together

Sometimes its the input from just one independent thinker that saves us from a groupthink-driven disaster. The trouble with cynics is that they all see themselves as independent thinkers. Skepticism and cynicism often come packaged together, and sometimes the only difference is a little maturity. This is where good coaching and mentorship can make all the difference between an asset and a liability.
Diogenes-statue-Sinop-enhancedThink you may be on the borderline between skepticism and cynicism? Here’s a good way to tell: gauge your emotionality. Are you passionate? Does this passion consistently manifest itself as anger, frustration, or bitterness? If so, then the odds are that you’re coming down on the cynical side, and your valid arguments are being ignored because of it. Emotions are just as damaging to credibility as dogmatism, its just a different kool-aid you’re drinking.

If you know you’re an independent thinker but face a general perception that you’re bitter or malcontent, then the problem is you and you need to fix it. The “complainer” label doesn’t just harm you professionally (which you may or may not be concerned about), but it seriously undermines your credibility. The best thing you can do is tone down the emotion and ramp up the professionalism, because our service needs your critical thinking.

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6 thoughts on “Skeptical ≠ Cynical

  1. What you are saying about cynics is not entirely true. For the most part they are independent thinkers-who in general have been burned by the “cooperate and graduate” attitude you are advocating. They tried it your way and got scorned-because of the narrow self interest at work in the upper echelons of our senior leadership. In aviation at least-when ideas were ridiculed in large proportion its a good flag that you need to re-think what you are advocating. Back in “the bad old days” there was a place for good emotional dialogue and a healthy dose of sarcasm. Perhaps the new Navy full of company men has no place for it-if so its the Navy’s loss.

    • Sorry it took so long for this comment to show up; for some reason it got caught by the spam filter and I only just saw it. Thanks for contributing.

      It looks like you’re saying that cynics become cynical because they’re not taken seriously. I’m saying that cynics are not taken seriously because they’re cynical.
      I’m not at all denying that cynics are predominantly independent thinkers. I will confidently say, though that while emotional arguments do have their place, they come at a high credibility premium– this is true in ANY professional organization. I would prefer that our independent thinkers master the ability to frame their arguments in a professional context, so they’re not tuned out as run-of-the-mill JO angst… THAT would be the Navy’s loss.

  2. I have been accused of being an “independent thinker” once or twice myself by those holding positional authority over me. Sometimes it was meant as a compliment while, at other times, it was meant as a putdown.

    In my experience, good leaders appreciate independent thinkers, even when they are wrong. Good leaders use these discussions as an opportunity for refining the thought patterns of their subordinates or for discussing bigger picture issues the subordinate had not considered. Even when one is wrong, one can learn something from it. And even when a subordinate draws the wrong conclusions but is thoughtful in his or her approach, a good leader can use the situation to help the subordinate grow. This is a win-win situation for everyone involved.

    By contrast, poor leaders create a lose-lose situation for the organization. Poor leaders use these opportunities to belittle, scorn, reject and injure their subordinates, depriving the subordinate of a growth opportunity and perhaps ensuring that the senior will not gain the benefit of candor and additional perspective going forward.

    I see it as my duty to be an independent thinker and, when necessary, to share those thoughts with my leaders in an appropriate and respectful manner when doing so could create a positive outcome (or, at the very least, avoid a negative one). How I present my conclusions is up to me; how they are received is up to my XO, CO, etc. The former I can control while the later I cannot.

    By allowing ourselves to become “cynical” and thus holding back our advice to our senior officers, we are abrogating our duty and pursuing our own “narrow self-interest” of self-preservation. While it is true that you have to choose your battles, when something really matters, stand up and be counted. That’s what you are paid to do as an officer—from O-1 all the way to O-10!

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