cult is the degree of control management exercises over employees’ thinking and behavior. This starts with recruitment, where employees are screened for their “fit.” Once in, they then see that on-boarding processes and incentive systems tend to reinforce the need for alignment. This drives the way people communicate, make decisions, evaluate each other, as well as hiring, promotion and termination decisions. In such a climate, individualism is discouraged, and group-think prevails.
One executive claimed that he only went home to change clothes, adding that he might just as well stay at work using the facilities in the wellness center. In this context, corporate jollities like the weekly get-together took on more sinister colors. Red flags should go up when there are too many pep talks, slogans, special lingo, podcasts, YouTube clips, motivational team-building activities, and sing-songs. Any time there’s a potential for people to feel excluded for how they think or feel, the organization has entered cult territory. And ultimately that will be bad for business. The rigidity of cult behavior stifles innovation, thereby endangering the company’s future. If you’re a senior executive, therefore, you should always be on the lookout for signs that your culture has become psychologically coercive. Ask yourself: Do employees believe in the company’s vision because they understand and agree with it or because that’s what they’re supposed to do? Does the company encourage them to have personal lives? Most importantly, does it encourage the individuality and non-conformism that drive breakthroughs? The acid test of good leadership is the ability to unlock the potential of followers to get the best out of them, not to create a corporate culture that enslaves them.
Cults tend to see themselves as being outside the mainstream, but ambitious to grow such a following that their views become accepted by a majority. Religions are bigger and govern nations. A cult is a would-be religion. But why has “cult” come to have such negative connotations? It is a way of saying: you lot are weirdos. Yet the roots of the word, and its common inheritance with the word “culture”, show that perhaps more of us belong to cults than we’d care to admit. One of the most important books published in England in the 1970s is Raymond Williams’s etymological companion, Keywords. “Culture” comes from the Latin colere, which originally meant “inhabit, cultivate, protect, honour with worship”. The “inhabit” sense developed through colonus, to colony. Yes – when imperialists said they were spreading culture, they had some etymological authority. The “honour with worship” strand developed through cultus to give us cult. But “culture” in all its early uses was a noun of process. This is reassuring for those who argue that cultures have permeable boundaries.