Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Organizational Change Cynicism: A Review of the Literature and Intervention Strategies

Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Organizational Change Cynicism: A Review of the Literature and Intervention Strategies

Article excerpt


This study provides an overview of the impact, both positive and negative, of employee cynicism on organizations. The authors focus specifically on empirical findings regarding the relationship between organizational change cynicism (OCC) and employee engagement (EE). Data from a sample of 110 healthcare industry workers in the Southeastern United States were analyzed as part of a larger investigation on underemployment. Results showed a significant negative relationship between OCC and EE (r = -.29, p < .01). An outline summary of specific recommendations to reduce OCC, based on prior research findings, is presented.


In the organizational sciences, cynicism is typically viewed as an employee attitude that is detrimental to an organization (see Andersson & Bateman, 1997, for one possible positive effect of cynicism on ethical behavior). Bommer, Rich, and Rubin (2005, p. 736) note that "Organizational cynicism is generally conceptualized as a state variable, distinct from trait-based dispositions such as negativity and trait cynicism." Similarly, Wanous, Reichers, and Austin (2000) argue that "cynicism is more appropriately treated as a learned response, rather than a personality-based predisposition" (pp. 135-136).

Cynicism is generally believed to be a common employee characteristic (e.g., Goldfarb, 1991; Kouzes & Posner, 1993; Mirvis & Kanter, 1992; Terkel, 1974). Indeed, Kanter and Mirvis (1989) believe cynicism to be widely prevalent among employees, and they describe 43% of the American workforce as cynical. Similarly, Reichers, Wanous, and Austin (1997) reported 48% of their employee sample as being high in organizational cynicism. Indeed, by all accounts, worker cynicism has increased in recent years.

Prior research provides some clues regarding critical factors that can instill or perpetuate cynicism on the part of employees in organizations. For example, Beer et al. (2005) claim that flawed organizational design and lack of faith in leadership can result in low commitment and ultimately cynicism. Based on a sample of public service executives and employees, Bruhn et al. (2001) reported that involvement in planned organizational change could prompt unrealistic expectations, and that dissention, fragmentation, and cynicism might result from frustrated expectations. Of interest, recent theoretical and empirical studies have addressed the link between organizational justice and change efforts. In this regard, Bernerth et al. (2007) found that procedural and interactional justice predicted commitment to change and level of organizational cynicism.

Organizational Change Cynicism

One specific type of cynicism that is beginning to receive increased empirical attention is organizational change cynicism (OCC). OCC is defined as "a complex attitude that includes cognitive, affective and behavioral aspects resulting in increased beliefs of unfairness, feeling of distrust, and related actions about and against organizations" (Bommer et al., 2005, p. 736).

A number of negative behavioral effects of organizational change cynicism (OCC) have been reported. For instance, Wanous et al. (2000) reported OCC to be negatively correlated with organizational commitment, motivation to support change efforts, the amount of recent previous change, perceptions of supervisory role effectiveness, and amount of participation in decision making, while positive associations were found between OCC and both negative affectivity and grievance filing. Abraham (2000) reported a negative association between OCC and job satisfaction and a positive correlation between OCC and alienation. According to Abraham (2000, p. 287), "Employees who fail to see any improvement in their particular jobs from proposed changes direct their resentment toward the job itself by becoming dissatisfied and alienated."

As Reichers et al. (1997, p. 51) suggest, "Cynicism persists because it is selectively validated by the organization's mixed record of successful change, and by other people in the organization who hold and express similar views. …

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