Why Your Company Needs A Cynic

The modern definition of cynicism doesn’t have positive connotations, but the original meaning of the word — a cynic as a contrarian is something every company could use.

Why Your Company Needs A Cynic
[Image: Flickr user Scott Anderson]

Positivity seems to be one of the most valued traits in modern companies. At Whole Foods, the core values are ‘We Satisfy, Delight, and Nourish Our Customers,’ At Coca Cola, values include “integrity: be real,” “passion: committed in heart and mind,” and “collaboration: leverage collective genius.” At Zappos, “Deliver WOW Through Service,” “Do More With Less,” and “Create Fun and A Little Weirdness.”


All these things are great. But as the New York Times‘ Adam Bryant says, if there’s a gap between the values you profess and the actions you take, people start shutting down, rolling their eyes, and getting cynical. As Yahoo CMO Kathy Savitt says:

I think it’s easy for people at many companies to become cynical, which then leads to politics, which can create a cancer that can topple even the greatest companies … Cynicism is that first cell, so to speak, that can metastasize within an organization when you feel a company is not actually living out its core values.

The modern definition of cynicism certainly doesn’t have positive connotations. But the word has an older (and perhaps more innovation-minded) meaning originating with the philosophy of Diogenes and his ancient Greek buddies.

Diogenes refused to do anything out of convention or deference, for example, it was uncouth to eat in the marketplace, so he ate in the marketplace.

This idea of a cynic as contrarian, not pessimist, is something that modern workplaces could benefit from more of. Diogenes’s tradition is alive and well with several modern visionaries.

A few good cynics:

Tim Ferriss
Learning meta-master Tim Ferriss urges us to unhand our rules of thumb. In his Four Hour Workweek and his new HLN show, the author unpacks how the most crucial part of learning a skill or trade isn’t in catching all the received wisdom available, but dissembling the craft itself, finding where 20% of the value lies, and emphasizing that.

Eric Ries
Lean Startup author Eric Ries asks us to seek the evidence, not the argument. This is because “strategy” and “analysis” aren’t very well suited to doing disruptive–and thus unprecedented–entrepreneurship. Instead of arguments, we need experiments, he says.


“I work hard to get entrepreneurs to (interact directly with customers),” Ries told us, “because it requires you to hold the vision strongly and be willing to listen to see if your facts and your strategy are actually correct.”

Scott Cook
Intuit founder Scott Cook wants you to stop listening to your boss–and start attending to users’ behavior. He remembers being confounded by the fact that his company was full of intelligent people doing earnest research that delivered inaccurate decisions. After visiting Toyota, he had an epiphany: it’s not that people needed use their logic muscles to make subtler arguments. Instead, they need to run the company as series of experiments.

So all three are cynics. In the most optimistic of ways.

Hat tip: the New York Times

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.