Scepticism: a critical skill or cynicism in disguise?

Written by Investors In People

Scepticism is a key skill for people that sift through information at work. This is everyone. Emotions, data, emails, social media, sales statistics, phone calls – it’s all information.

Scepticism helps you make better decisions. But like all important skills, balance is key. Being inclusive is important, for example, but leaders need to know when to be directive.

With scepticism, it’s a slightly different balance: you need to always be sceptical yet never cross the line into cynicism. But what exactly is the difference?

What is it?

Scepticism is healthy doubt. It’s a questioning attitude towards information and knowledge.

It’s a tendency to want evidence. To hold back belief for that little bit longer. To investigate that little bit further.

It’s a need to corroborate. To dive deeper. To value transparency. To want to make up your own mind on the value of information. It’s a desire to own your decisions and your beliefs.

Scepticism is one of the first skills journalists are taught, for obvious reasons. A sceptical journalist is a good journalist.

But scepticism isn’t just about journalists holding power to account. It’s an important skill for everyone looking to make better decisions.

What does scepticism look like at work?

New ideas

When we are sceptical, we are wary of our emotional response to new ideas. We question why we – and others – may consistently prefer certain types of ideas.

We look at new ideas from multiple angles, at multiple times and we seek advice from people unlike ourselves to fill gaps in our own critique.

We are never inherently against new ideas, but we know they must be thoroughly stress-tested.

Buying new products or services

When it comes to buying new products or services for our organisations, we are wary of product marketing.

We value the opinions and reviews of others, but realise the fit must be right for us, an outcome that only comes from our own investigation.

Even if we think a product may be suitable, we ask more questions and require convincing answers. We test in the real world and demand results before we think about purchasing.

Analysing data

We need to be sceptical of data for two reasons. Firstly, it’s simply information: society seems to put more value on information we label data. But they are one and the same.

Secondly, we tend to base a lot of decisions on data. So the stakes are high. Data must be attacked from multiple angles. Assumptions need to be probed. Questions must be asked and asked again.

Data can’t explain itself, so we must constantly ask questions and dive deeper as we look for meaningful patterns and anomalies that will help us make better decisions.

Strategies and roadmaps

There’s a well-known mantra in business: “it will take twice as long and cost twice as much.”

This mantra is all about scepticism. It urges us to be sceptical about the future because it’s impossible to foresee all obstacles (or indeed opportunities).

In essence, it’s about being as realistic as possible about what the future holds.

Because that’s what scepticism ultimately is: trying to be as realistic as possible through the use of tools, such as questioning.

Let’s look at cynicism…

Cynicism is a general lack of belief in the intentions of others, in the potential of ideas, of the chances of success, of a better tomorrow.

Where scepticism is healthy, cynicism is not.

Where scepticism is a tool to be used when needed, cynicism is an overarching approach to work and life.

Where scepticism takes a realistic view of the human condition, cynicism takes an entirely negative one.

Scepticism is future-focused and progressive, while cynicism is mired in the past.

And where scepticism empowers organisations to make better choices, cynicism will suck the grease from the cogs of the machine.

What does cynicism look like at work?

Managers who assume their people aren’t pulling their weight.

Conversely, people who always think their managers are out to get them.

That member of your team who says “oh, it’ll never work” but never highlights the good points.

The leaders who think employee engagement is a waste of time and that people can never change and improve themselves (the Theory Xers).

Those who are actively disengaged may be chronically cynical about the organisation’s leaders, direction and future.

Cynicism acts like a virus, disempowering those around the cynic. That’s why it’s dangerous to team unity and dynamics.

Helping people to be more sceptical

Re-position: scepticism is a positive trait. Help people understand it’s a key part of being able to think critically and genuinely assess new opportunities

Educate: teach people about the sheer number of biases that can affect our thinking and how scepticism can help us mitigate against them

Introduce the devil’s advocate: in meetings, have someone actively play the role of the devil’s advocate so you can start teasing out what it means to be sceptical. Ensure they play a constructive devil’s advocate and not a cynical one
Research methods training: research is a hugely important skill in work now. Research skills inherently include scepticism, for example in the difference between primary and secondary sources

Commercial awareness – like scepticism – is a non-negotiable skill for success. Do you have it?

Take our 2-minute organisation wellbeing questionnaire

Beginner – your journey is just starting…


Thanks for completing our workplace wellbeing assessment! Don’t be disheartened by your result, the fact you’re considering employee wellbeing is a huge step in the right direction.

Here are some common themes we see when organisations are only just starting out on their wellbeing journey:
  • No strategy or poor buy in from executives
  • No goals or objectives or they’re poorly defined
  • No budget assigned to wellbeing
  • Company doesn’t consider all areas of wellbeing
  • Company doesn’t collect any data on wellbeing
  • Company doesn’t understand how to measure success


It’s great to see that you’ve made the commitment to start your wellbeing journey. If you take the time to plan, execute and measure your strategy you’ll start to see positive results.

We’re here to help you every step of the way – complete our enquiry form and our team will get in touch to see how we can help you!

Intermediate – you’re taking wellbeing seriously!

Thanks for completing our workplace wellbeing assessment. You can be pleased with your result, you value your employees wellbeing, your approach needs refining to get to the highest level.

Here are some common themes we see when organisations are making the right steps but need to refine them:
  • There is a strategy and execs buy into it, but it needs developing further to achieve your ambitions
  • There may be goals and objectives but they need refining
  • There is a budget assigned to wellbeing
  • Company may not consider all areas of wellbeing
  • Company struggles to collect and use wellbeing data
  • What defines success may be a little blurry


It’s great to see you’re making positive steps with your wellbeing plan. If you take the time to refine your strategy you’ll start to see even better results.

We’re here to help you every step of the way – complete our enquiry form and our team will get in touch to see how we can help you!

Advanced – your strategy is flying high!

Thanks for completing our workplace wellbeing assessment. You should be ecstatic, employee wellbeing is a key driver at your company and you’re doing everything on your own to promote it.

Here are some common themes we see in top organisations:
  • There is a clear strategy and executives actively promote it
  • There are clear goals and objectives – you know what you want to achieve
  • You have a budget that’s dedicated to wellbeing
  • You deliver in all areas of wellbeing
  • Your company collected data and uses it to inform your strategy
  • You have stealer KPIs and understand how they contribute to success


It’s great to see you’re making positive steps with your wellbeing plan. However, wellbeing can always be improved – so you’re in the perfect place to undertake our official wellbeing assessment!

Complete our enquiry form and our team will get in touch to talk you through our wellbeing accreditation.

Thanks | #MAKEWORKBETTER

BEFORE YOU GO...

Hopefully you found what you were looking for. We’re always releasing new content and scheduling events to tackle some of the hottest topics in the news right now, so do check back soon.

Have you considered how your organisation would benefit from becoming accredited? Let’s talk! You can book a meeting directly using the link below.