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ORGANIZATIONAL CYNICISM: AN INITIAL STUDY

John P. Wanous, The Ohio State University, College of Business, 1775 College Rd., Columbus, OH 43210-1399
Amon E. Reichers, The Ohio State University, College of Business
James T. Austin, The Ohio State University, Depmiment of Psychology
ABSTRACT

a sense of betrayal by diose held responsible for the


change. In order to avoid similar feelings about future
changes, individuals cease to hope and come to expect
others to fail. Thus, cynicism is a leamed response to
unsuccessful attempts at change that is adaptive in the
sense that it prevents the individual fix)m feeling painful
emotions. It also serves as a perceptual screen through
which ambiguous events can be interpreted so as to
maintain consistency between beliefs and perceptions of
teality. So, for example, change efforts that are mixtures
of success and failure are interpreted by cynics as failures.

Organizational cynicism is proposed as an attitude that


results from repeated exposure to mismanaged change
efforts. Components analysis revealed a two-dimensional
solution and hierarchical regression analyses demonstrated
the incremental validity of the measure over job
satisfaction and organizational commitment in the
prediction of self-reported motivation.
INTRODUCTION
Aktouf (1992) recently questioned the assumptions that
underlie much recent work on organizational change. The
rallying cries are team spirit, empowerment, creativity,
change, accountability, transformation, culture, and quality.
Effective leaders are portrayed as heroes who embody or
create myttis and values (Schein, 1985) that mobilize a
work force which is passively waiting for inspiration.
Aktouf criticizes this writing for its failure to consider the
qualities of the people "on" whom the new leadership,
strong culture, or change effort is supposed to woric. There
is another tradition of work on change (c.f. Likert, 1967)
that expressly acknowledges individuals. The focus is on
data gathering and feedback, management support, and
participative strategies as ways of inducing commitment to
change and/or reducing resistance to change. This
approach characterizes individual employees as thinking,
feeling beings who can be "made" more or less receptive
to change by carefully orchestrated change strategies.
People are not portrayed as totally passive, but they are
presumed to be readily influenceable by the right
techniques applied at the right time. However, there is
little recognition of how change attempts affect employee
motivation to change.

Some people may exhibit predispositions to become


cynical based on development, just as some people exhibit
predispositions to be satisfied (Staw & Ross, 1985). Our
view is that anyone can become an organizational cynic if
confronted with repeated failed attempts at change and
provided with no credible explanations.
Our definition of orgsinizational cynicism merges
expectancy (Vroom, 1964) and attribution concepts (Jones
& Davis, 1965). The former is relevant because beliefs
about the futility of change are similar to the "expectancy"
concept (i.e., the perception that efforts will result in
successful action), except that one's frame of reference is
more organizational (in the case of cynicism) than personal
(as in expectancy theory). Attribution is relevant because
organizational cynicism refers to how an individual
attributes causation to change efforts. It is when the
attribution about motives and/or abilities of others is
"intemal" that cynicism develops. It is important to
establish convergent/discriminant
validity
for
organizational cynicism. Cynicism is forward looking,
because the referent of the belief is future change efforts.
Cynicism is not a post hoc evaluation of one's job and is
thus distinct from job satisfaction (JS), which is backward
looking (Wanous & Lawler, 1972). Cynicism is not selfdirected, but at the people responsible for making change.
Thus, cynicism is distinct from leamed helplessness or low
self-efHcacy. Cynics do not necessarily experience
themselves as powerless individuals. Cynicism is also
conceptually related to organizational commitment (OC).
Low commitment is indicated by a respondent's perception
of personal values that differ ffom those espoused by the
organization, willingness to leave the employing
organization, and unwillingness to exert effort on behalf of
organizational goals. It is this last aspect of commitment
that is similar to cynicism. However, cynicism is more
particular in its focus. Commitment refers to organizational
goals in general, whereas cynicism refers specifically to
future change efforts.

These two views conflict with the experiences of many


organizational change agents. Frustration, delay, and
failure characterize change efforts at least as often as even
partial successes. An assumption of the present study is
that many people are simply not influenceable by the
"right" collection of change techniques, and that the
history of change efforts within an organization plays a
role in the success of future change efforts. This occurs
because previous attempts at change fail and employees
become cynical about the possibility of future success.
We define cynicism as a midrange construct encompassing
pessimism about the success of future organizational
changes based on the belief that change agents are
incompetent, lazy, or both. People become cynical as tiiey
see many attempted changes in their organization, but few
successes. Cynicism is also likely when successes are not
communicated to employees, and they presume failure. As
a result of this process, they adopt an attitude of
pessimism toward fijture change as a defense mechanism
against disappointment When hoped-for changes do not
occur, individuals experience disappointment and perhaps

Organizational cynicism may have useful application as


one aspect of an organization's climate for change. An
organization's climate for change includes conditions and
practices that foster or inhibit change, including
management support, a vision of the fijture, employee
involvement, and reward policies that reinforce the new

269

behaviors that are desired. Cynicism may be an important


aspect of the change climate because of the self-fulfilling
nature of the belief. If the people who must participate in
the change in order for it to be successful are cynical, tiiey
will refuse to participate and thus ensure the failure.
Cynics will refuse discretionaiy opportunities to
participate, and may resist required forms of participation.
To the extent that cynics refuse to participate wholeheartedly in change efforts, change efforts are more likely
to fail. The failure then reinforces the original cynicism.
Because changes that are partly successful are ambiguous,
they may be interpreted by cynics as failures, further
reinforcing cynicism in a negative cycle.

cynicism using hierarchical multiple regressions. The


dependent variables concemed motivation ("keep on
tiying" & general work motivation). The main control
variable in these regressions is NA, which v/as always
entered into the regression fiirst To assess the unique
contribution of cynicism, we compared it to JS and OC.
This comparison was done in two ways: (a) cynicism
entered as a predictor before the "set" of JS and OC, and
(b) cynicism entered as a predictor after the "set". In Ihis
way, cynicism can be compared to the traditional "set" by
examining the incremental contributions depending on
order of entry. The most stringent test of whether cynicism
"adds value" is whether it adds explained variance in the
criteria beyond that accounted for by JS and OC.

Although cynicism is conceptually distinct from JS and


OC, it is similar because all three are woric attitudes, rather
than specific beliefs. As such, they should be significantly
correlated, but not so strongly that one would begin to
question their distinctiveness. For example, although job
satisfaction and organizational commitment are positively
related in this study, they have been repeatedly shown to
be sufficiently distinct to warrant the continued use of
both meetsures (see Wanous, 1992, for a review).

METHOD
Sample. The sample was 1,114 persons (67.4% response
rate) fiom a manufacturing plant. The obtained response
rate should not be compared to 100%, because on a given
day about 8% of the employees were out of the plant, and
the illiteracy rate was estimated to be at least 10%. An
"effective response rate" of about 75-80% is more likely.
Measures. Following the conceptual definition of cynicism
above, 4 items were written to measure each of the
following: (a) futility of change (e.g., most of the
programs that are supposed to solve problems around here
won't do much good; (b) intemal attributions for the
failure of change (e.g., the people responsible for solving
problems around here don't try hard enough to solve them;
and (c) extemal attributions for the failure of change (e.g.,
tfie people responsible for fixing problems around here
can't really be blamed if things don't improve). These
items were scrambled, although all appeared on one page.
Although extemal attributions for change failure are not
considered part of cynicism, they were included as a check
on discriminant validity. All items were measured using a
5-point Likert format

Although we believe that cynicism is primarily leamed


from experiences at work, there may be a predisposition to
be cynical. Although there is one recent measure of
cynicism-in-general (Kanter & Mirvis, 1989), there are
adequate measures of negative affectivity (NA; Watson,
Clark, & Tellegen, 1988). To examine the possibility that
organizational cynicism is partly based in a dispositional
tendency, we measured NA as a control variable using the
"in general" temporal frame because it is closest to a
dispositional tendency.
A likely consequence of cynicism is found in motivation
to engage in efforts to further change. Cynical individuals
are not expected to offer their support for change attempts
or to volunteer effort to make improvements. Accordingly,
we measured a concept called "keep on trying" to capture
the type of motivation likely to be dampened by cynicism.
Although cynicism is viewed as primarily affecting the
motivation to "keep on trying," it may have "spillover"
effects on general work motivation. In order to assess this
possibility, two aspects of expectancy were measured: (a)
expectancy that effort will result in successful
performance, and (b) beliefs about the instrumentality of
performance for receiving extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards/
punishments.

Principal component analyses were conducted using SPSS.


Because of listwise deletion the sample size is 757 (not
1,114). However, the subject-item ratio for this analysis is
63:1, above recommended minimums. First, the sample
was split into odd-even groups. Separate component
analyses with varimax rotation were run with no restriction
on the number of components. Identical results were found
for the odd and even samples. In both cases extemal
attributions formed a distinct component.
Intemal
attribution items always loaded "cleanly" on the first
component, and futility items always loaded on both
components. Complex loadings for the futility items were
above .30 on both components, but the higher loadings
were on the second component Because these results
closely paralleled our definition of cynicism, we imposed
a two-component limit for the final solution (entire
sample). The alpha reliability of the 8-item scale was
estimated as .86. Table 1 shows the 12 items arranged
according to the results of the analysis. The results
supported the conceptual definition of cynicism as
composed of futility about change and intemal attributions
about those responsible for making change.

Three types of analyses were used. Adequacy of definition


and measurement was assessed by components analysis of
items conceming: (a) futility of change efforts, (b) intemal
attributions for the failure of change, and (c) extemal
attributions for the failure of change. If tiie data support
the conceptual definition, futility and intemal attribution
items should emerge as one component, whereas extemal
attribution items should fomi another. The next stage
focused on relationships among cynicism and extemal
variables. We expected that cynicism would be negatively
related to JS and OC, and positively related to NA.
Cynicism should also be negatively related to motivation
to "keep on trying" and possibly to general motivation to
work. The third stage assessed the incremental validity of

Other measures fall into two groups. The first concems the

270

effects of cynicism on an individual's motivation related


to making changes. We called this "keep on trying" and it
is measured with 4 items (e.g., "I personally support
attempts to make things better around here", (alpha = .68).
Second, to assess the possible "spillover" of cynicism on
woric motivation, we measured the "expectancy" of one's
own efforts resulting in successful perfonnance (alpha =
.59). Also measured was the "instrumentality" of job
periformance (good & poor) and the consequences of tiiat
perfonnance
(intrinsic
& extrinsic
rewards or
punishments).
Nine items measured perceived
contingencies using a 5-point Likert format. Extrinsic
outcomes (E) are controlled by another person, whereas
intrinsic outcomes (I) are those under one's own control.
The items were combined into scales for intrinsic (alpha
= .77) and extrinsic (alpha = .77) outcomes.

The regression results always had negative affectivity


entered first as the main control variable. Following this,
one ordering has cynicism entered before the commitmentsatisfaction set and another has cynicism entered after flie
commitment-satisfaction set. The first ordering estimates
the incremental effect of cynicism after the main control
variable of negative affectivity; the last regressions are the
most stringent test of the value added by cynicism.
One way to summarize the results in is to average the
amount of explained variance across the four motivation
variables. When cynicism is entered first before the set of
commitment and satisfaction, cynicism accounts for an
average of 12.6% vs. 11.2% for the satisfactioncommitment set (entire sample). When cynicism is added
after the set, it explains an average of 2.9% vs. 20.9% for
the commitment-satisfaction set. Although the average
increment in explained variance for the latter is smaller
than for the former, both increments are statistically
significant

The second type of measure is "general" attitudes likely to


correlate with cynicism. These included OC, JS, and NA.
Organizational commitment was measured with the nineitem short form ofthe OCQ (alpha = .87). Job satisfaction
was measured using a single item rating of overall job
satisfaction with a five point response scale. This is
because previous research comparing "global" and facet
items found that the global item was reliable and better
represented overall job satisfaction (Scarpello & Campbell,
1983). Finally, NA was measured using the scale
developed by Watson et al. (1988). Respondents rated "the
extent you generally feel this way that is, how you feel
on average at work" using a 5-point scale (l=very
slightly, 2=a little, 3=moderately, 4=quite a bit,
5=extremely). The alpha reliability was .88.

A different picture emerges when the sample is divided


into salaried vs. hourly employees. For salaried employees,
when cynicism is entered before the set of commitment
and satisfaction, it accounts for almost twice as much
variance compared to satisfaction and commitment in the
four dependent variables (17.8% vs. 9.1%). However, in
the hourly group cynicism explains less average variance
(9.2%) than commitment and satisfaction (13.1%) even
tiiough it is entered before them. When cynicism is entered
after the commitment-satisfaction set, it averages 5.6% of
explained variance vs. 17.8% for commitment and
satisfaction in the salaried group. Despite the smaller
amount of explained variance, the increments are
statistically significant for three of the four criteria. For
hourly employees, when cynicism is entered after
commitment and satis&ction it accounts for an average of
1.8% vs. 20.3% for commitment and satisfaction. Because
the sample size of hourly employees is large, even this
smaller incremental amount of variance (compared to that
found in the salaried group) is statistically significant.

RESULTS
Table 2 shows that cynicism correlates significantly with
other measured variables in the expected directions. It is
negatively related to all variables but NA. In the case of
NA, however, the correlation with cynicism is weaker than
with all of the other attitudinal/motivational variables. In
general, NA displays weaker relationships to all other
variables than does cynicism. The average r between
cynicism and the motivational variables (Variables 5-8,
Table 2) is -.35. This value can be compared to the
average correlations with these same variables for the
familiar attitudes of OC (.45) and JS (.29). Last, intrinsic
instrumentalities are more strongly related to cynicism,
commitment, and satisfaction than are extrinsic
instrumentalities ( < .05).

DISCUSSION
The dictionary defines cynicism as having little faith in
human sincerity. Organizational cynicism was defmed here
as a ftmction of &iled attempts at change, so that persons
become pessimistic about ftiture change and leam to blame
those responsible for failing to make change. Although the
dictionary definition refers to cynicism as the views held
by cynics, we have taken a situational rather than a
dispositional approach in this study. Cynical views about
organizational improvements are a major impediment to
ftiture change, and they are probably the result of previous
failure rather than personal dispositions to be cynical.

Hierarchical multiple regressions were used to assess the


incremental effects of cynicism on the motivational criteria
relative to the effects of commitment and satisfaction as a
set (Table 3 was omitted due to space limits. Write to the
first author for a copy). These regressions were conducted
on the entire sample of employees, and then on the
salaried vs. hourly employees separately. We subdivided
because the groups were found to be different on ahnost
every measure taken for this project. Furthennore, hourly
employees were all members of a union and performed
mostly manual labor in noisy, uncomfortable conditions,
whereas salaried employees were both management and
clerical employees, many of whom woriced in air
conditioned buildings separate from the hourly employees.

Our view of cynicism incorporates elements ft-om botii


expectancy and attribution theory. In order to test the idea
that organizational cynicism is a combination of both
pessimism and blaming others (rather than blaming the
situation), we wrote items that reflected both intemal and
extemal attributions for the failure of change. Principal
components analyses confirmed that intemal attributions
commitment The moderate negative correlations between

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TABLE 1
ORGANIZATIONAL CYNICISM SCALE INTERNAL ANALYSES

Component Loadings
Item

SD

II

3.26

1.05

.62

.07

2.69

.98

.64

.01

40

2.87

1.01

.73

.05

42

54

2.69

.92

.65

.14

41

51

57

3.41

1.01

.69

.00

52

40

41

35

2.92

1.02

.64

.01

35

39

42

44

48

3.25

1.05

.76

.04

44

44

58

44

57

49

2.96

.96

.51

.22

31

27

34

33

33

40

45

2.57

.97

.05

.27

03

06

11

11

00

-02

04

06

10

2.97

1.06

-.13

.59

-09

00

-05

01

-11

-07

-09

03

16

11

3.28

1.04

.05

.75

12

01

07

14

05

05

06

21

19

44

12

3.40

.95

.22

.54

19

12

16

19

18

13

22

25

19

30

41

10

11

12

TABLE 2
DESCRIPTIVE STATISTICS AND CORRELATIONS FOR ALL VARIABLES

Variable

SD

Correlations

1. Org Cynicism

3.00

.74

(.86)

2. Org Commitment

3.60

.72

-.46

(.87)

3. Job Satisfaction

3.54

1.02

-.32

.51

.-

4. Neg Affectivity

1.46

.56

.21

-.21

-.27

(.88)

5. Keep Trying

3.67

.68

-.35

.47

.26

-.07

(.68)

6. Expectancy

3.81

.72

-.35

.49

.37

-.22

.56

(59)

7. Intrinsic Instrument.

3.75

.97

-.40

.47

.33

-.08

.46

.51

(.77)

8. Extrinsic Instrument.

2.34

.81

-.32

.38

.20

.03

.27

.29

.38

(.58)

Note: All r's significant at < .05 except for r between NA & extrinsic instrumentality; r's in parentheses are alpha estimates.
After evaluating a measure of organizational cynicism, the
next step was to examine its correlates. Cynicism has a
low positive correlation with NA, supporting the view of
cynicism as a reaction to circumstances rather than as a
trait The low cynicism-negative affectivity correlation
cannot reasonably be attributed to random error because
both variables have fairly high reliabilities. Organizational
cynicism was also examined in relationship to two
"general" work attitudes, satisfaction and organizational

converged with items assessing pessimism about change,


thus supporting our conceptualization. This result provides
some discriminant validity, because it was possible that the
two types of attributions could have combined as one
dimension, leaving pessimism as a separate dimension.
These results are also gratifying because they were seen
independently on separate halves of the sample, a form of
cross-validation.

272

effects of the cynicism may be more intense than among


people who had less positive attitudes to begin.

cynicism and the two attitudes are not surprising. If the


correlation were veiy high, it would suggest that cynicism
was not measuring anything unique beyond that already
captured by satisfaction and commitment If the correlation
were very low, it would be surprising because cynicism is
probably one important cause of low satisfaction and
commitment, although the reverse causality may be just as
plausible. A major reason that JS and OC were measured
and compared to cynicism is that they are so frequently
used in fteory and research on employee motivation. If
cynicism is worthy of future research efforts, it must be
empirically distinct from these two attitudes. It is probably
not sufficient to argue that cynicism is conceptually
different, unless the data confirm that cynical employees
react differently even when both JS and OC are controlled.

Some of the necessary next steps in the study of


organizational cynicism include the following. First,
replication in otiier organizations is clearly indicated.
Second, future research using other trait measures is
needed. Third, situational and dispositional antecedents of
cynicism should be explored. Fourth, future research
might consider the possible "spillover" effects of cynicism
on other attitude/behavior domains. Fifth, construct
validity could be used to evaluate and refine of the
measure developed here. Assessments of stability,
expansion of the nomological network surrounding
organizational cynicism, and comparative evaluations with
other measures (e.g., the Kanter & Mirvis, 1989, measure)
are needed.

Organizational cynicism was correlated with the four


criteria of employee motivation as expected. As cynicism
increases, one's motivation to "keep on trying" to make
change, one's expectancy of success at woik, and one's
perceptions of both intrinsic and extrinsic instrumental
outcomes decrease. The decrement is stronger for intrinsic
vs. extrinsic outcomes, probably because the former are
under the control of the individual. The final set of
analyses concemed the explanatory power of cynicism
with regard to the four motivational variables, while
controlling for both negative affectivity and for two
important job attitudes, satisfaction and commitment. Two
main findings emerged. First, cynicism is strongly related
to the four motivational criteria after controlling for the
effects of negative affectivity. Specifically, negative
affectivity accounted for an average of 1.7% of the
variance across the four motivational variables vs. 12.6%
for cynicism when it is added after negative affectivity.
Even when both JS and OC are added after negative
affectivity as further control variables, cynicism still
accounts for a significant increment of 2.9% of the
variance across the motivational criteria. The latter is a
stringent test of the value added for cynicism.

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