CEO’s Letter: Combatting Cynicism: The Next Great Battle for HR

For my column this month, I would like to share an excerpt from my opening remarks during the HRO Today Forum, NA. This year’s conference theme was “Leading through Uncertainty.” If you would rather watch the video be sure to advance to time index 3:36.

Uncertainty seems to feel more uncertain. So, what is uncertainty? According to the dictionary, it has a few definitions. The best synonym is doubt. We doubt. Is doubt new? I am older than many of you, and I looked back to the beginning of my professional career. So, let’s go back to 1987.

The first moment of economic upheaval during my professional career was the stock market collapse on Monday, October 19, 1987 or so-called “Black Monday.” By afternoon, media pundits were predicting a fundamental breach if not the fall of Western capitalism and social chaos. It turned out to be a relatively short-lived economic downturn.

By late 1992, we were back in a recession. It probably impacted the U.S. presidential election as much as Ross Perot, but it was a recession with all the same background noise of potentially turning into a Great Depression. It lasted about a year and a half.

And who can forget April 15, 2000 when the Nasdaq started dropping and eventually lost more than half its value. We would, once again, be buffeted by the September 11, 2001 tragedy at the World Trade Center. The world got more uncertain, but the business climate rebounded. And by 2008, The Great Recession was preceded by weeks of fear of a global banking collapse.

So, we have all experienced this economic turmoil in our lives, but fate had one curveball to throw at us with COVID-19. It has been four years since the national lockdowns and three years since they, for the most part, ended. But the scar sits on our psyche as if the wound was fresh. The economic turmoil was extreme and global. There was no “playbook” for leaders in any field and HR was at the forefront of the response inside the enterprise. Stress levels were at an all-time high. The economies rebounded and inflation and interest rates soared, leading to economic slowdowns in many countries and industrial sectors.

Add to these historical moments, I must reference all the mergers, CEO transitions, and technological and social disruptions of the past four decades and, I ask you, why is uncertainty something unfamiliar?

This time uncertainty feels different. I would argue that this is one of the major battles HR needs to fight and win in the near future. The issue today, in my opinion, is that we have lost our optimism that uncertainty is short term. We have lost our faith that we can get through this moment and that better times are around the corner. The future seems both dim and grim. Another reason for this pervasive sense of uncertainty is a loss of faith in our institutions.

I am not interested in the political debate, in fact, divisiveness in our society is at a ridiculous level. It used to be that both sides could agree to disagree, or you left a discussion thinking your philosophical opponent was just wrong. Now they are more than wrong. They need to be discredited or canceled or destroyed. Neither political side likes our government institutions for one reason or another. Trust in government during both the Obama and Trump administration was lower than it was during the Nixon administration. That’s right, I said NIXON. This lack of optimism, this ennui, this exhaustion is felt by our workers too.

In the world of business and government, we used to see the Treasury and the Fed as sources of truth. However, lately they have become more propaganda and spin than in the past. I keep hearing the jobs reports are good, but as of February, in 10 of the prior 12 months, they were downgraded the following month. That’s seems suspicious.

The truth is this is all reflected in economic sentiment. Confusion by both consumers and business leaders grows and the faith that things can get better in some foreseeable time frame has eroded.

So, in any economic turmoil what does a prudent person or executive, for that matter do? You seek information and perspective. The source used to be the news media. Faith in the media is nearly gone after being our most trusted institution a few decades ago. The real and pervasive truth is that we are befuddled and overrun with commentary, but little fact. The news media has turned into an affirmation business not an information business.

So, our skepticism rises. And, for many skepticism has turned to outright cynicism. There are a lot of social factors to blame such as education, child rearing practices etc. However, regardless of root causes, cynicism is here. And, social media is the principal dispersal agent for this viral epidemic.

Social media has offered a lot of benefits in connecting people and giving the public a voice, but it turned dark and now it is now a bit scary. Today social media floods our homes, offices, our phones, and our public discourse with a constant stream of cat pictures and negative commentaries. In the office, social media can be used for many positive purposes, and we should harness its power for those abilities. But the negative content is still coming into the feed of our employees. The younger generations, in particular, are vulnerable to this negative world view.

One of the words used in the textbook definition of cynicism is that word DOUBT again. As aforementioned, what makes this era of uncertainty more trying is that we have lost our optimism that the downturn is short term. Many of these cynical characteristics manifest as bitterness, distrust, and disbelief. We see this in many people now.

What are the long-term effects of this cynicism? Hopelessness, depression, stress, anxiety, and negative impact on careers and earning potential. If every employer is to be distrusted, why not ghost your first day of work or change jobs every year.

I remember that in my first job I had a free health club membership on the condition I went to the club at least twice a week. Employee wellness is not new. Fitness has been an HR initiative for 30-plus years. What is new is the near EPIDEMIC levels of poor emotional well-being. HR leaders need to call out this issue as a sea change from prior generations.

So, what is HR to do?

Well, we can help promote healthy world views. We can stay neutral on contested social issues but demonstrate tolerance of differing opinions. We can promote emotional wellness and stress the positives of a successful career journey. We also should reinforce positive self-images for employees as well as a culture of belonging.

These may be things we are doing, but we need to do even better. I think combatting cynicism and its negative impact on our workforces is the next great battle for HR.

Elliot S. Clark

Tags: May 2024

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