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Separating cult from culture

Cult-like behaviors, such as over-reliance on a charismatic leader or isolation from outside perspectives, can be detrimental to a company's growth and innovation. A healthy corporate culture should foster diversity, encourage open communication, and promote a work-life balance.

Daniel Howden
Daniel Howden

Daniel was a VP of Comms at Workable. He writes about the world of work. He was formerly with the Economist and Guardian.

You know what to expect from a headline like this. You’ll be introduced to some brainwashed characters displaying cultish behavior. After a breathless description of groupthink, sleepless vigils and bizarre rituals, the writer will lift the veil to reveal that this is not the Branch Davidians or the Moonies, it’s a Silicon Valley unicorn. Take a breath. If you’re reading this at work, look around you. Consider how many of the following assertions apply, at least in part, to your company?

• All-knowing leadership
• No room for differences
• A new and better way
• Works prove beliefs

Probably at least two. And no, this doesn’t mean you work for a cult. This checklist comes from Christianity Today, and is designed to help churchgoers work out whether their faith is being exploited to lure them into a cult. Apparently this is a serious concern.

Beware the refrigerator

Alarmists like Dave Arnott, a Texas academic, think that we have as much to worry about in the office as we do at church. In his book Corporate Cults he contends that companies, under the guise of creating friendlier work environments, have stealthily turned themselves into a replacement for family and community. “It starts with a refrigerator in the lunchroom and ends in a full-blown corporate cult,” he warns.

Are we right to be reflexively worried about cults? Almost everyone agrees that a strong company culture is essential to success but could it be that truly successful organizations inevitably come to resemble cults?

This has come up because we’re in another phase of talking too much about culture in business. And whenever a concept is discussed with such urgency, or with the conviction of discovery, it’s usually worth looking back at where the idea came from.

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Born in the highlands

Asked to trace the origins of corporate culture, as well as some of the most radical and lasting thinking on management, you might not have traveled to Scotland in the 1950s and spent time at its electronics firms. But you’d have missed out.

That’s what the late Tom Burns and his co-author GM Stalker did for their 1961 book, The Management of Innovation. What they produced continues to defy provincialism and, somehow, time. It was written when it was still broadly agreed that there was only one right way to structure an organization and it involved a lot hierarchy, verticals and management charts.

Burns and Stalker’s seminal work changed this. Defining the past approach as “mechanistic” they modeled a new kind of organization they called “organic” which worked with informal, sometimes horizontal linkages which had been anathema to the old formal structures. They predicted that organic organizations would be better placed to adapt to the sweeping technological changes they were certain were coming. Meanwhile, their mechanistic counterparts would be overwhelmed.

They also felt that a new term was needed to understand why one organization was different than another even when they were in a similar sector and employed similar people. They noted “a dependable constant system of shared beliefs,” in some companies and the term they used was “culture”.

Culture is everything

A more global survey followed at IBM in 1973, which put the same questions to their workforce all over the world. It found that for all their national and regional differences they had more in common than expected. They seemed to act and think similarly, the Dutch researcher, Geert Hofstede, found. He concluded that organizations had “personality”, which often remained constant even when founding members had departed. This “character of an organization,” which was more obvious in some than others, was its corporate culture.

Over the years the twin ideas of organic organizations and culture have become estranged. Culture has been championed in isolation and its definitions have just kept coming. For its simplicity, my favorite is “the way things get done around here.” But you can’t beat IBM’s 1990s savior, CEO Lou Gerstner, who pronounced that “culture is everything”.

Possibly the most perceptive is the lily pond metaphor of Edgar Schein, from the Sloan School of Management at Harvard. On the surface it’s the way things are done around here, the norms, the stories, the symbols. But these behavioral patterns reflect a second, deeper, level of culture, which are the firm’s shared values. And these shared values are driven by the third and most fundamental level of culture: shared assumptions.

Naturally some organizations did culture better than others and an idea that relies on coherence was easier for smaller teams to foster or understand. On the other hand, the clumsy way in which corporate culture was understood and inculcated by larger organizations became a running joke to individualists and sophisticates everywhere.

Let’s have some organized fun!

Whether it was America’s Walmart — with their compulsory company cheer — or Japan’s Yamaha with its 1980s company song, it was clearly creepy. And let’s not forget the Chinese air conditioner makers, Broad Group, who still chant their daily anthem: “I love our clients and help them grow their value.”

I suspect that Burns’ would find these expressions of culture more than a little mechanistic, if not cultish. Dissatisfaction with this conformism — in its different expressions across different cultures — is partly responsible for the rise in popularity of the startup as a career choice.

The romantic vision of the startup with its emphasis on talent, innovation and disruption has prompted a renaissance in company culture discussions. The importance attached to it is borderline religious. And the article of faith is the advice from investor Peter Thiel’s to Airbnb CEO, Brian Chesky: “don’t fuck up the culture.”

This all sounds very much like organic organization. Surely then any cultish elements that have crept into Silicon Valley are an ardent accident, a noble idea gone a little astray? Not necessarily, there are some influential people and organizations that have been thinking very clearly about cults for some time.

It has become commonplace in marketing to seek a cult-like relationship with customers. Brands want true believers who are less likely to make rational decisions based on mundanities like price, and whose devotion will lift the status of a product or service into the realm of belonging. What if the same insights could be used to shape a similarly effective character for a company?

The return of the cult

The idea is to take some of the fanaticism that makes a person queue all night to get the latest version of a consumer electronics good and instill that into a workforce. Douglas Atkin, Global Head of Community at Airbnb, has been thinking about this. He has become the chief apologist for cults arguing that they are long overdue a rehabilitation.

“They’re normal, people join for good reasons, and we should suspend our prejudice,” says Atkin. “The popular stereotype of cults as manipulative, dangerous and even suicidal is true to a certain extent but that’s only because only the dangerous ones get all the press. All religions began as cults, and contrary to popular belief, most cult members are normal, psychologically healthy, intelligent well-educated and socially well-adjusted individuals.”

This isn’t much of defense. Cults have always recruited or attracted the vulnerable by targeting their sense of alienation and offering them a sense of belonging. This new identity is often drawn in opposition to hostile outside forces (think Apple versus IBM, or the sharing economy versus government regulators). Cults work by isolating people from family, community and, most importantly, perspective. Worst of all, they are heavily dependent on the messianic charisma of the leader.

It might make commercial sense to seek cult-like devotion from customers but most companies could and should benefit from a dose of skepticism and dissent as well cheerleading and commitment. This was the key find of Burns and Stalker more than half a century ago. Most serious research has shown that employees are looking for meaning as well as a paycheck from their job. But then they’re looking for the same thing outside of work. When one begins to negate the need for the other, it’s getting cultish in a bad way.

It’s interesting to stand back and plot where you or your company are on the line from culture to cult. But this effort should be salted with a little perspective. For which I give the final word to Professor Schein. His advice was not to lose sight of whatever the business problem was that you were trying to solve, “don’t focus on culture because culture is a bottomless pit and can be a big waste of time.”

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