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When professionals get concerned about the safety culture in organizations there are a range of dispositions that indicate that things are not good. Recognizing these indicators early is one of the best ways to ensure that problems are addressed.

The combination of the following indicators in an organization are a recipe for a toxic safety culture:


Cynicism is a psychological disposition that distrusts everything or selectively trusts only what it knows. A cynic has a lack of faith or hope in all, but self. Cynicism hides behind undisclosed values as only they can discern what is true or not. Cynicism understands truth as absolute and the cynic has the secret of what criteria is used to discern truth.

Cynicism is an unhealthy disposition in any organization because it elevates distrust in others and projects only trust in self. This is destructive for the fundamental of teams or groups as trust is essential in managing risk. If you have cynics in a culture they cannot be trusted and won’t trust others. Cynicism is listed in the DSM V as a neurosis.


Skepticism ought not be confused with a healthy sense of doubt. Organizations rely on a healthy balance between doubt and faith. If one doubts all things then nothing gets done. A healthy sense of doubt understands the importance of competing goals and knows that relationships are not worth risking for one’s own sense of truth.

Skepticism is most associated with knowing nothing as compared to the cynicism, which knows everything. Skepticism infects a culture with so much doubt that the uncertainties of risk and human fallibility become a block to activity. The skeptic doesn’t know what to do except they know it is not what you are doing.


When a culture is infected with pessimism and negativity everything tends to just spiral down.

Pessimism is fueled by skepticism and cynicism and this leads to a very unhappy workplace. Pessimism extracts meaning and purpose out of the workplace and soon the meaningless of work affects risk taking and safety. Positivity on the other hand engenders effective working teams, morale and trust.

Double Speak

One of the cultural challenges for organizations is managing the gap between espoused-theory and theory-in-use.

This is where the disposition of cynicism and skepticism are so toxic. Those who don’t understand the tensions of fallible leadership in human organizations expect perfection (also a disorder) and demand absolutes.

When leadership or management makes mistakes it is the cynics and skeptics who are first on the persecution wagon because if they were in control there would be no mistakes.

All organizations and leadership have gaps between what is said and what is done, it is when this gap is at extremes in contradiction that employees soon learn not to trust the words of leaders. Trust is the foundation of healthy culture.

More info about safety and risk disorders in this article:

A reader comments on this post:

People believe cynical thinking is a bad thing that is only owned by grumps, who by the way might have cause.

I have become a cynic because I see too much optimism that ultimately ends up killing people or groups of people.

Sadly, you have stereotyped the cynic into the exact thing that worries me, the grumpy man, is a policeman, a firm, a lawyer, a strict army man, or a killer? Is a drunk driver a killer?

Being a risk cynic is not about blaming anyone (this was primed by an expert and you believe it), and again, is discrediting cynical view points as something that should not be listened to. Cynicism is nothing to do with “telling” anyone what to do (the real meaning is totally opposite to this notion), it’s questioning things that may not seem like the best way to do something.

When you read an SOP, why are you reading it? Are you looking for the perfect or the fault?

We become what we think is very true, look at Schumacher’s ski incident. Skiing down a mountain in an area not zoned, probably because he was too optimistic or over confident about safety rules and his ability, next thing you know, he is in a coma in hospital fighting for his life.

A risk cynic would have most likely stayed on the track where it was the safest thing to do. He can still have fun, he can still ski, but does it safely.

Using the term “Man Up” is something you should be very careful in using, it is the most inappropriate thing to say to anyone, and why people who are struggling with life, end up giving up on life. Read below then again tell me to Man Up!

My wife was hit by a drunk driver many years ago, although her pain is always there. We were in two separate cars that day, she was behind. After a toilet a stop, we took off for the 2hr trip back home. Just 5 minutes into the trip we went over a hill. Looking back after I had gone over the top, I noticed my wife had not come over the hill. I knew something was wrong and within an instant, my mind remembered the t-intersection I just past. I turned around and went back over the hill to see a mess of twisted car flung off the side of the road. There she was, my love and my life squashed in a steal shell, in pain, semi unconscious and bleeding badly. I wanted to kill the driver no doubt, but I could not leave my wife’s side or let go of her hand. Without going into the story as it upsets me greatly to this very day, and most likely a key driver of my cynical view point of people/leaders/organizations, and why they do unsafe stupid things that cause great harm to other innocent people.

My wife was flown by helicopter to Brisbane (Australia). My wife nearly died the first week as she lay there looking like an anorexic strapped to a bed with hoses and crap coming out everywhere. She nearly died before they had a chance to brace her broken back with titanium rods that stuck out from her skinny body, before they had a chance to take bone from her hip to fuse her broken back, before they had a chance to cut out a large section of her bowl that spilt, before they fixed her smashed up face and teeth.

You want to use a story to say man up, to seize the day, to take a risk…what risk, risk of being stupid and placing your foolish attitude in the trajectory line of someone who is kind, does not drink, swear, put down anyone, the first to help anyone, who is pure in heart and who did not deserve this.

My wife would love to be able to seize the day, but she is a broken woman with much pain caused by an idiot.

Don’t frame me as anything, until you know my story. I am a cynic for this very reason, and my aim in life if to protect and save as many people as I can from the stupidity that does.

Dave CollinsJanuary 19, 2014 at 11:45 AM responds

I am not sure what you are trying to do here and correct me if I am wrong – it seems that you are actually agreeing with the premise of article but fighting hard not to?

 I think extreme views at any end of the spectrum (cynical, optimistic, positive, negative, power, submission, religious etc, etc) are extremely dangerous. I do worry about what may have happened in the past lives or experience of extreme cynics to make them become that way and why they can’t actually enjoy their lives in general and why they can’t tolerate or simply ignore the actions of others, but rather focus on taking responsibility their own happiness and safety.

I, for one, do not wish to become a cranky old man or to continually look to blame others for my own failures and misery! As you say, in a situation of positive culture there is very little need for cynicism as there is involvement, discourse, understanding, trust and mutual respect – that is how I read the article as well.

 I don’t feel that I am qualified enough to use the term “psychology” but I have been around long enough to know that humans are complex in the way they think and behave, that nothing is simple, to expect the unexpected, that most people don’t like being told what to do, people don’t always behave the way you want them to (probably because you told them to) and that there is a positive side to every person and every situation if we have an open mind and choose to look for it.

I don’t know which psychologist or philosopher said “for things around me to change, first I must change” or “we become what we think” but it is so bloody true!!! – perhaps read the latest article by James Kell and the behavior of the other patients in his hospital ward.

I think that if someone has become a cynic due to past experiences or failures then they need to man up, take personal responsibility and look at how perhaps they failed to take appropriate action, didn’t sell the idea well enough or were just plain wrong.