Exploring The Red Flags of Cult-Like Cultures

5 minute read

Have you ever talked to a friend who raved about their company’s culture? You know the one… the friend who glorifies their company’s relentless, health-focused culture, with a bike-to-work program and the fridge that is continuously stacked with all sorts of chia-seed everything. How about the opposite? The friend who constantly complains about their micromanaging boss, watching the clock as carefully as a watchmaker. There's also the guy you know who works in the “radically transparent culture,” with open offices, open salaries, and unlimited vacation days.

I recently met a woman who used to work at Google, and it got me thinking about all the different kinds of organizational cultures. After learning about her stint at Google, I was desperate to know more. You don’t have to work at Google to know about its reputation– private chefs, napping pods, dog-friendly, a dedicated people analytics team (dedicated to studying culture!), and of course, the incredibly cool office spaces. What shocked me was the way she described experiencing the culture as a young, career driven, working mother. “Everyone thinks Google is known for its ‘strong’ culture – and it is. It just wasn’t a healthy culture for me.” The around-the-clock, all-in nature of Google didn’t work with the young mother who wasn’t able to commit the same hours as the typical Silicon Valley worker, which as she described it, was young, single, and male. See the thing was, Google attracted a certain kind of professional – the people in a certain stage and phase of life that would allow Google’s “strong culture” to thrive. She described it as cult-like, and that she didn’t fit the mold for Google’s desired culture at her particular stage in life – she was informally pushed out, not based on performance, but because she behaved and worked differently. So it got me thinking – If 'strong culture' doesn’t necessarily imply 'healthy culture,' can a company’s culture ever be too strong, and how will you know?

The word culture derived from Latin, meaning to “tend to” or “cultivate.” But now when we use the word culture, we can often be using it in a number of different ways, notes Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker: “It goes without saying that “culture” is a confusing word, this year or any year. Merriam-Webster offers six definitions for it (including the biological one, as in ‘bacterial culture’).” He goes on to note that one main problem is that culture “is more than the sum of its definitions.” Critic Raymond Williams wrote that “culture” has three divergent meanings: “there’s culture as a process of individual enrichment, as when we say that someone is 'cultured', … culture as a group’s 'particular way of life,' as when we talk about French culture, company culture, or multiculturalism; and culture as an activity, pursued by means of the museums, concerts, books, and movies that might be encouraged by a Ministry of Culture. ... These three senses of culture are actually quite different, and, ... they compete with one another.”

If we narrow in on organizational culture, we come to a definition that mostly coalesces on the underlying beliefs, values, behaviours, and norms that exist in an organization, uniquely combining to form the social and psychological experience of organizational members.

When I began to reflect on my new friend's experience at Google, I couldn’t help but wonder about the cult-like nature of certain organizations, and their ability to attract and retain employees on the basis of their strong, yet sometimes unorthodox, cultures. Although one might assume the words “cult” and “culture” are closely related, they actually have differing meanings, and the former, often indicating something more sinister than the latter, grounded in an unwavering devotion to a person, cause or even religion. HBR writes about the risks of corporate cultures turning “cultish”: “…What starts out as a voluntary alignment sometimes end up looking like something more sinister. Healthy corporate cultures can easily turn into corporate cults, whether leaders intend for it to happen or not.” Although some organizations may praise the cult-like nature of their organizations, it is important to consider the possible vulnerabilities to breakdowns. Famous scholar Kets de Vries writes in HBR that corporate cults often start in recruitment screening for “fit”, whereby individualism can be unintentionally discouraged, and “group-think prevails.” Like the case of Google, cult-like companies can start to become replacements for families and communities, isolating employees by creating around-the-clock workspaces, and “encourag[ing] people to center their lives around their jobs, [leaving] little time for leisure, entertainment, or vacations.”

Striving for a “strong culture” but want to identify when it is becoming dangerously cult-ish? Kets de Vries notes that “language is a big clue”, whereby employees start using their own terminology and inside jokes to reinforce belonging. Although not always cause for concern, rituals can be a second sign: “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.” Similar long, working hours, eating habits, and high-turnover of employees who don’t see to “fit”, are other clues to watch for. HBR encourages leaders to ask themselves some key questions when considering if their cultures have entered dangerous territory:

  • Do employees believe in the organization’s vision because they understand and agree with it or because that’s what they’re supposed to do?
  • Does the organization and leadership encourage employees to have personal lives?
  • Does the organization encourage the individuality and non-conformism that drive breakthroughs?
  • Do leaders encourage critical thinking and varied perspectives in team meetings, or look for answers that confirm their own beliefs?

“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.” This isn’t to say that alignment and team norms don’t matter – to be clear, they do. But a great culture will encourage diverse thinking while at the same time supporting consistent, value-driven behaviour, which may sometimes show up as dissent.

“When a culture ceases to embrace diversity and dissent, it becomes a cult.”