How to Avoid Creating a Negative Culture of Cynicism and Sabotage

in Business by Emily Snell

How to Avoid Creating a Negative Culture of Cynicism and Sabotage

How to Avoid Creating a Negative Culture of Cynicism and Sabotage

Some employers fall victim to scare-tactic polls that report 80 percent of employees are either running for the exits, job hunting, or sabotaging their businesses from within as a result of a negative culture. On the other side, there are employees who’ve become jaded in the wake of “engagement” projects that are insulting, inauthentic, inept, or all of the above. When that happens, you get Dilbert, the famous comic strip by Scott Adams. In the Dilbert universe, bosses are all incompetent and self- serving, employees are all arch-cynics manipulating a nonsensical bureaucracy, and nothing much gets done. The dialogue from this cartoon that ran on November 25, 2009, pretty much says it all:

The Pointy-Haired Boss: “We need more of what the management experts call ‘employee engagement.’ I don’t know the details, but it has something to do with you idiots working harder for the same pay.”

Dilbert: “Is anything different on your end?”

The Pointy-Haired Boss: “I think I’m supposed to be happier.”

Our employee surveys tell us that when these conditions are present, employees become certain that regardless of what’s said, nothing will change. Typically, when we engage a company for the first time, 50 percent of the respondents to our global benchmark survey say they are not confident that the engagement survey will lead to any changes being made. For these employees, the pattern has always been consistent, all talk and little action; when changes do occur, they’re usually at the top and don’t filter down to the rank and file. Employees can’t connect changes in the organization with their feedback or input. This leads to a negative culture, further cynicism, and eroded trust.

In contrast, when companies give more data to frontline managers and empower them to share the survey data with their teams, create their own action plans, and take the initiative, employees become confident that the surveys will lead to changes. If you empower individuals, cynicism retreats. Unfortunately, for many companies, the survey is their engagement campaign. That’s where the work ends, and that doesn’t work. Avoiding negative culture takes more. An engagement program has to be integral to every part of your organization. A survey is just your opening move, like cutting down the trees in order to build the house.

It’s no surprise that when senior executives perceive employee apathy and read that three-quarters of their people are looking for new jobs, despite $700 million spent on engagement, they become cynics. Some may even begin to suspect that employees claim to be disengaged just so they can get new perks, but, as we’ve said, engagement works. The key to success is knowing what engagement is, how it differs from satisfaction, and how to cultivate it on an organization-wide scale. Let’s take a look at the first two issues.

Satisfaction vs Engagement

Many managers mistakenly think increasing employee satisfaction with a bunch of perks like gym passes, ping pong tables, and an organic food court will increase employee motivation and engagement and correct a negative culture, but satisfaction is a complex system in itself, so let’s break it down.

Hygiene factors play a big role in determining a person’s level of satisfaction with their job and strongly influence employee retention. Hygiene factors consist of pay and benefits, supervision, working conditions, and job security (among others). If they aren’t there, they lead to negative culture and cause employees to look for better opportunities elsewhere.

Let’s look at an example. A number of years ago, a large automobile manufacturer contacted us with a concern that had a tremendous impact on their levels of employee morale. Several employees had reported being robbed in the parking lot while leaving the assembly plant at night. The final straw that prompted the call was when an employee was assaulted, leaving the employee bruised and in poor shape. This led to a negative culture. The manufacturer reached out to us to help them understand what, specifically, they needed to do in order to restore the level of employee confidence in their safety and well-being.

For these employees (and employees anywhere, for that matter), safety was not something that motivated them or got them excited to come to work. It was a hygiene factor. Being safe did not cause satisfaction, but taking away their safety (robberies, assault, etc.) quickly caused them to become dissatisfied and demotivated in their jobs. While safety is certainly not a perk, it illustrates an important reality: Constantly introducing more and better hygiene factors doesn’t increase job satisfaction or performance, but the lack of these factors could cause huge declines in satisfaction.

Blame the adaptation principle. Psychological research says that when someone jumps to a higher level of income or a new standard of living, they quickly adapt and become dissatisfied again. If you try to buy employee satisfaction by upgrading perks and hygiene factors, the price always goes up. Give employees a bonus, and they want a bigger bonus. Build them a gym, and they’ll expect a gym with a pool. Taco Tuesdays? Great! But the company down the street also gets Margarita Mondays. That’s not greed; it’s human nature.

Here’s the rub: While you must have employee satisfaction in order to have employee engagement (and you can’t have lasting engagement without it), satisfaction factors on their own don’t lead to engagement. Satisfaction is just the price of admission.

Satisfaction is transactional and contractual. In return for their work, you promise to provide employees with the basics: compensation, tools and resources, physical safety, dignity, and respect, to name a few. Both the organization and the employee must continue to make constant deposits in the relationship “bank account,” and both sides continually monitor their account activity. For every withdrawal on either side, a deposit must be made. When there’s an imbalance on either side, a deposit must be made or a deficit, employee apathy or employer resentment leading to negative culture, results.

You’ve created a transactional environment when:

  • The main goal is maximum productivity; employees operate according to guidelines so thoughtless that activity seems automated
  • Employees are commodities who can easily be replaced, and they know it
  • It involves management, rather than leadership
  • Conformity is valued over creativity
  • A “what’s-in-it-for-me” entitlement mentality is pervasive
  • The culture is a give-and-take of negotiated compromises. When something is given, a commensurate reward is always expected
  • Reciprocal trust is low between individuals and leaders
  • The same issues and mistakes are continually repeated. Effort is not dedicated to creating an environment in which people learn, nor are they motivated to improve or correct past mistakes
  • Focus is on working longer and harder, rather than smarter
  • People are motivated to work just hard enough not to get fired. There is little or no discretionary effort. It’s about the paycheck. You get exactly what you pay for, and employees often remind you of that fact

Satisfied employees will put out as much effort as they are compensated for, and no more. They deliver on what is asked of them, as long as you deliver on your part of the deal. They show up and do their work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to say no when the phone rings and it’s a headhunter on the other end.

For the most part, management owns satisfaction. They cut the checks, deliver the benefits, and pay for the perks. There’s no sense of “we’re in this together” on the part of management or the employee. It’s truly contractual.

Engagement is very different:

  • Satisfaction is transactional; engagement is transformational
  • The organization owns and controls satisfaction; employer and employee have a 50-50 responsibility for engagement
  • Satisfaction and motivation involve only feelings; engagement involves feelings but requires action
  • Satisfaction is about temporary happiness; engagement is about long-term feelings of purpose, belonging, growth, and personal accomplishment
  • Satisfaction is imposed on employees from without; employees choose to be engaged
  • Satisfaction occurs when hygiene factors are met; engagement occurs when employees have the capacity, reason, freedom and know-how to engage1
  • Satisfaction is about hygiene factors, which do not necessarily motivate people but when taken away can cause them to become demotivated. Engagement is about hearts, spirits, hands and minds
  • With satisfaction, you get out exactly what you put in; with engagement, you get a multiple of what you put in
  • Satisfaction is a zero-sum game in which employers and employees do the minimum in order to fulfill the contract; engagement contributes to “peak experiences” that make employees eager to give extra, discretionary effort
  • Satisfaction is expensive. Raises, perks, and office extras cost a lot of money. Engagement can cost nothing but requires a conscious effort
  • Satisfaction is about surviving; engagement is about thriving

Creating Saboteurs

Another critical difference is that the absence of satisfaction can be far more damaging than disengagement. Engagement isn’t continuous. On some days we might be disengaged and have to slog through our jobs. We’ve all been there, right? But overall, we remain engaged as long as the organization continues creating fertile soil for engagement. Over time, the big picture matters, even if we’re temporarily unhappy or have the occasional day when we’re just glad to leave the building, but when people become dissatisfied, it’s usually because they feel something they were entitled to isn’t there or has been taken away. That breeds the kind of bitterness and resentment that can lead to a negative culture and, eventually, to sabotage.


The origins of the word sabotage are murky, but it has a connection to a French word for shoe: sabot. One story has it that the word derives from the fifteenth century when disgruntled Dutch workers would supposedly throw their wooden shoes into the wooden workings of mills or textile looms in order to break them and bring automated textile manufacturing to a standstill. Another story suggests that sabotage comes from nineteenth-century French slang for an unskilled laborer who did poor-quality work because such laborers often wore wooden shoes.

In any case, the basic meaning of the word hasn’t changed: deliberate action aimed at harming an organization, government body, or other entity, usually in secret. Sabotage has long been viewed as both noble and justified: The Simple Sabotage Field Manual, produced in 1944 by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA), instructed U.S. citizens in ways to sabotage domestic factories and other industries should America fall under the control of either Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It’s fascinating reading and quite a primer on the many small ways that ordinary people can gum up the works in order to, in theory, bring down an enemy.

Though written over seven decades ago, instructions from the Simple Sabotage Field Manual appear to be strangely applicable to modern organizations:

  • Managers and Supervisors | To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work
  • Employees | Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do, instead of a big one
  • Organizations and Conferences | When possible, refer all matters to committees for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done
  • Telephone | At office, hotel, and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off “accidentally,” or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again
  • Transportation | Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an “interesting” argument

While engaged employees actively contribute to the success of an organization, disengaged employees can actively sabotage the organization’s progress and stimulate a negative culture. However, this is fairly uncommon. According to our research, fewer than 4 percent of employees are actively engaged in sabotage. Far more common is the employee who commits “passive sabotage.” These employees may refuse to go the extra mile for the customer, balk at training the new guy, be inattentive in meetings, or not report a quality concern when it’s noticed. They may be the people who simply don’t seem to care about anything beyond doing what’s required and then clocking out. Our research has found roughly 24 percent of employees fit into this category. Even though their intention may not be to harm or hamper (the dictionary definition of sabotage), the outcome of their indifference is often the same as if they were actively trying to cause harm… negative culture.

Dissatisfaction can have the same result. Employees who feel management doesn’t fulfill its contract can become saboteurs through subtle actions like criticizing colleagues and missing important deadlines, or by taking drastic actions like stealing files or revealing trade secrets to competitors.

To create and maintain lasting employee engagement, the perks are indeed necessary, but should not be the focus. There is much more that must follow including establishing a benchmark through an employee engagement survey followed by open and honest ACTION by management. The survey is just the start, but through listening to employees and proving to them that you are willing to make changes based on their responses, engagement will increase and trust will flourish. Get rid of the cynicism, negative culture, and the saboteurs; replace them with empowered champions in the organization.

About the Author

Emily Snell

Emily is a contributing marketing author at where she regularly consults on content strategy and overall topic focus. Emily has spent the last 12 years helping hyper growth startups and well-known brands create content that positions products and services as the solution to a customer's problem.

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