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The best career advice I ever received – drop the cynicism

Posted by Arjun Moorthy

May 22, 2011 11:09:00 AM

When I became a manager for the first time, my boss Francis De Souza took me aside and gave me some of the best career advice that I’ve ever received. 

I was usually pretty laid back at work and enjoyed cracking jokes with my team.  The jokes were always harmless, typically some sarcastic remark that wasn’t aimed at any person in particular but rather poked fun at some past story.  However, Francis advised that as a manager there was no room for cynicism at work and that I had to change that habit of mine.

sarcasm hugh laurie

I was shocked as I thought cracking jokes was one of my better (few?) assets and kept the team functioning well.  However, he clarified and said that it wasn’t to stop joking around but rather not to be cynical as it was inherently pessimistic.  Funny stories and witty remarks are great but seemingly harmless comments about the company’s processes, history, systems, industry, leadership etc undermine the team’s confidence about their future at the company.

Francis further pointed out that teams often subconsciously reflect the attitude of their manager and hence having a positive outlook was the most important function of the manager because then the teams would perform at their best.  This isn’t to say that the manager should be blindly optimistic and cheerful – that just makes her/him look out of touch with reality.  Rather it means that the manager can be realistic and light-hearted yet not cynical.

I went on to manage a team in India and the lesson proved even more valuable there.  In India sarcasm is not as common as in the west and I learned that my brand of so-called humour was not well understood.  Indeed, when I came back I realized how pervasive cynicism was in the west and that it was unnecessarily synonymous with humour. 

Since then I’ve worked to reduce my sarcastic remarks and found that wit is actually more memorable.  Well, perhaps I should wait for my team to comment on if that’s actually true.

Ps: the last embedded link is a fantastic, if long, account of cricket in India.  What ostensibly is an article on sports actually turns out to be a very insightful commentary on the modern Indian mindset.

Topics: career advice, managing

Career Advice I Wish I Knew Earlier 

Hello.  I started this blog to distribute some of the best career advice I have been given over the many jobs I've had.  I've been fortunate to work for and with some great bosses like Francis DeSouzaNancy Kamei and Rick Roberge, and some unique companies, like The Boston Consulting Group, that invest heavily in making each employee a success even after leaving the firm.

The advice and training I received here stands in sharp contrast to my experiences with some not-so-great bosses and companies I've also worked for.  I'm continualy amazed at how valuable good advice has been in my career so I hope to pass on the good advice, and insights from mistakes I've made, via this blog. 

Thanks in advance for your comments, particularly when you can improve upon the ideas posted.

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