When corporate culture becomes more of a cult

There’s a spectrum – and some employers go too far

They spend most of their time confined to a compound, with different areas for working and eating, perhaps even sleeping. They spend every day with the same companions, all of them working toward the same overarching cause and following the same leader. 

There’s a good chance they all dress in a similar fashion and have a peculiar shared language of terms, acronyms or slang that would make little sense to an outsider. They can probably all list the shared values or tenets of the group — maybe these are even plastered on the walls, just to drill the message home. 

Put that way, it all sounds a little disconcerting, but that brief snapshot can describe a number of highly admired workplaces. 

Building a pervasive work culture, with shared values and common expectations of behaviour, is an ideal of the modern workplace — and generally speaking, that’s a good thing. But there are some situations where an organization takes the concept of “culture” a little too far.

And the troublesome part is determining when the line has been crossed.

“It’s not a black line, it’s a grey area,” said Dave Arnott, author of Corporate Cults: The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization and a professor at Dallas Baptist University.  

There’s no doubt “cult” is a loaded word, but the concept doesn’t always have to involve underground bunkers, odd religious tenets, alien overlords or doomsday theories. 

“There are not cults and non-cults; all organizations have culture and, of course, the word ‘cult’ is a sub-part of that word. So, to some degree, all organizations are ‘cult-ish’ — it’s a question of how far along the spectrum (they are),” said Arnott.

Fair or not, recent headlines about the all-consuming work culture at Amazon raised questions once again about where the line should be between work and life — and determining when the workplace has encroached too far into the personal lives of its employees.

Too cult-y for comfort 
There are a few common denominators groups with cult-like qualities often share, said Arnott. 

“A cult has three things: devotion, charismatic leadership and separation from community,” he said. 

Devotion to one’s workplace is generally seen as a desirable trait, but it can certainly be taken too far, he said. 

“Often, people will start out with devotion for a cause, which is good, but then that devotion will get transferred to the organization — and that’s where it becomes dangerous,” he said. 

“Organizations are an instrument for getting things done for people. So if you keep the people in mind, then organizations really exist only as a means to some greater end. But some people have devotion to the organization instead of to the purpose or the people they’re serving.”

Second, there is the whole issue of the charismatic leader.

“Usually, we see charismatic leaders as good and effective — and they are, when they direct people’s care and concern to the purpose — but (sometimes), they direct it at themselves,” said Arnott. 

In some cases, a charismatic leader is followed so blindly that he can lead an organization off a cliff, said Chris Cancialosi, founder and managing partner at gothamCulture in Bainbridge Island, Wash. 

“You get young entrepreneurs who come up with a great idea, and they grow so fast… the assumption is those CEOs made all that happen. They’re not perfect but as employees and stakeholders see this success, the assumption becomes that this person is a genius and everything they say has to be right — so why would you even question them?” said Cancialosi. 

“That charismatic leader (facet) is a dangerous aspect.”

The third factor is separation from the broader community, said Arnott. 

“All of us are (separated) to some degree. I drove to my university today, you went to your workplace, you separated yourself from your community. But the degree to which organizations offer ‘extracurricular’ activities (can be) when they move from a culture to a cult,” he said.  

“Even well-meaning things — like maybe they’ve convinced their bank or their credit union to open a location there in the building — that’s good, it saves (employees) having to leave. But it’s separated them from their community. And some workplaces have exercise clubs and book studies and even daycare… all those things separate the person from their community. And the more you separate, the further you move along that line from culture to cult.”

Unintended consequences
Some companies offer so many well-intended benefits and amenities, employees hardly have to leave the workplace at all, said Cancialosi. But there are unintended consequences to that.

“They’re trying to provide for their people — their work lives are demanding… but the unintended consequence is that it slowly becomes very insular. If you never have to go into town to do anything — go buy groceries or get your dry-cleaning done — and you don’t interact with anyone but the people within that organization, I think that lack of diversity can start to rear its ugly head,” he said.  

No matter how well-meaning an organization was when it designed the culture or amenities for employees, having a culture that is all-consuming has some truly negative impacts for employees, said Arnott. 

“Burnout is one, because they don’t have diversity in life. They have only their work and that’s the only organization they belong to,” he said. “When work becomes the family and work becomes the community, then you’ve crossed the line.”

It bleeds into the whole question of work-life balance versus work-life integration, he said. 

“There’s even more danger (today) because now an electronic umbilical cord we carry in our pocket or purse will allow us to seem as if we’re separated from the workplace — but we’re still attached.”

In addition to the negative outcomes for individuals, there are also negative outcomes for the collective and the business itself, said Cancialosi. 

“You’re going to start to see a lack of diversity in terms of thought because if we believe that this one way is the only way to do it, the opposite side of that is other ideas are devalued,” he said. 

“In our dynamics, we begin to marginalize people who have different views — and that leads to an enormous lack of diversity.

“Potential outcomes include (a) lack of innovation because nobody’s going to step outside of the mould.”

Cultivating a positive workplace culture
So how can employers cultivate the positive aspects of culture while still maintaining healthy boundaries? 
 “Choice,” said Arnott. “In other words, give the employee the choice — and the real choice, not just the stated choice but the cultural choice.”

A second consideration is delegation, he said. 

“The more people you have in the decision-making process, the more diverse decisions you’re going to get, and that helps to avoid corporate cults.”

Another critical consideration is maintaining self-examination and self-awareness when it comes to corporate culture, said Cancialosi. 

“Culture is not a fire-and-forget missile. It’s something that you need to be continually monitoring and you need to be thinking deeply about, and you need to — more importantly — be engaging people in dialogue about,” he said. 

“You can’t just set it and forget it. As things in the environment change, you need to be understanding what kind of keystone behaviours are going to continue to help you succeed, and which ones may need to be left in the corporate museum.” 

We don’t need no thought control 
If anyone can identify the common tools, patterns and behaviours employed by cult-like organizations, it’s Steven Hassan. A former member of the Unification Church, sometimes called the “Moonie Cult,” Hassan underwent deprogramming in the mid-1970s and went on to become an expert on cults — even consulting as an expert for the CIA.  

“I’ve seen a great series of changes occur over the decades where what was kind of out-of-the-mainstream information about brainwashing has become part of corporate culture and knowledge, in particular through their field of social psychology,” said Hassan, who is founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center in Newton, Mass. 

“In the last century, things have really ramped up in terms of understanding how to manipulate, how to hypnotize, how to indoctrinate, how to create businesses that extract the largest amount of money out of people.”

When people are exerting ethical influence, the hallmarks are honesty, transparency, respect for the individual, checks and balances, free will and accountability, he said. Not so with unethical influence, which often involves lying, holding back necessary information, distorting information, using guilt or fear and wanting to “clone” people.

“In other words, instead of respecting people’s individuality and their free will, the leadership has this point of view of ‘I know what’s best for them so I’m going to tell them what they need to do,’” he said, adding this can even extend to what they should read or wear. 

These kinds of control can involve behavioural control, information control, thought control or emotional control, said Hassan.
So how can you tell when an organization has crossed the line? 

“It’s usually a number of factors but, for example, (when it comes to) emotional control, there is a technique that I call phobia indoctrination, which is the deliberate implantation of irrational fears — that is you leave the group, terrible things will happen to you,” he said.  

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