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Is Your Workplace Turning Into a Cult? Here's How to Tell

by Petrina Coventry
24 November 2015
BUSINESS AND PROFESSIONAL ETHICS
‘Cult’ and ‘culture’ are significantly separated by a small linguistic unit. But corporate practice really can put the ‘cult’ into ‘culture’. The repercussions are disastrous for both organisations and their people. Business ethics expert Petrina Coventry explores.

If every culture has a little bit of cult in it, how do we know when there is risk of the line being crossed? There are a few signals worth keeping an eye on.

Good news cultures

Does everything seem a little bit too wonderful? Do you feel as though people are insisting that you accept how wonderful the organisation is? Good news culture can sometimes hide behind the guise of good PR – a glossy front, shiny happy people adorned in corporately branded t-shirts and caps.

If you sense that questioning, doubt or dissent is discouraged or even punished for fear of undermining the morale or image of the organisation, a good news culture could be at play.

Dominant logic

Ever heard of groupthink? Cults and organisations alike can generate a uniform way of thinking and communicating featuring jargon and particular decision-making processes. If your organisation’s meetings and strategic documents are full of jargon or alternative approaches from employees are rejected with statements like, “it’s not the way we do things here”, you might be crossing the line into cultish culture.

Elitism

Organisations that claim special, exalted status can generate polarising us-versus-them thinking. This in turn can pit the organisation against the wider community and divorce organisational values from those of the broader community. Many organisations claim to “only recruit the best”, but when “the best” happen to emulate and follow the rules or standards of the group it should be considered a warning sign.

'Dear Leader’ syndrome

‘Dear Leaders’ can create elitism and intimacy amongst followers allowing access only to those with unquestioning commitment to their belief system and ideology. Ask yourself who has access to the leader – are dissenting voices allowed, or only ‘yes’ men and women?

They often hold conflicting standards – the rules for followers do not apply to the leader.

 
When the polished charismatic face of an organisation has an internal following full of devotion to their ideas or ideology, it may be time to be concerned.

These leaders may claim new methods of wealth creation, life success or social influence. Their new solutions or ideology may appear able to solve serious and previously insurmountable problems.

They direct attention towards themselves whilst simultaneously feigning humility. In doing so they create dependency and obedience within an organisation by ensuring the wellbeing of the members is tied to their own wellbeing.

When the polished charismatic face of an organisation has an internal following full of devotion to their ideas or ideology, it may be time to be concerned. They can make it impossible to build a consistent ethical culture within the organisation.

Devotional blindness

Do your colleagues seem unusually committed to their ‘Dear Leader’, their ideology, role, status or wealth? Is worship or adoration being generated for the leader and close followers? Does the organisation seem to be venerated in an unusually fervent way? Devotion and adoration can override decisions people would otherwise make in their life. Blind subservience to the leader, group or ideology in cults can radically alter personal goals and commitments an individual had prior to joining.

Cults expect members to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities at the expense of self-identify or ties with family and friends. They forget their non-group identity and may fear reprisals if they consider leaving the group.

Ideology and exalted ends

When zealous attainment of what seems like an extraordinary goal seems prevalent, be concerned. Zeal for greater profit margins and work success can lead leaders and employees alike to rationalise unethical or ill-considered methods.

 
Zeal for greater profit margins and work success can lead leaders and employees alike to rationalise unethical or ill-considered methods.


Be sceptical of work cultures that drive debilitating schedules or tolerate sleep deprivation and employee burnout. Exaggerated ambitions or an exclusively achievement-oriented culture should also be viewed carefully. Do not tolerate leaders who justify the means only by whether they achieve stipulated goals.

Scapegoating and marginalisation

Most cults rely on intimidation to maintain their organisational identity. They use humiliation and blame to control their members, often through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. When dissent or criticism is not permitted and individuals are marginalised or excluded from decision-making, you have problems.

Fortressing

Be concerned when transparency is admonished or there is widespread fear that rival people or groups are aiming to undermine the organisation. A simple measure of this is the overuse or abuse of confidentiality agreements. The ability for individuals to discuss their business should only be restricted with good reason. Paranoia and secrecy should not undermine professional transparency.

Does any of this sound familiar? You can find examples of any of these situations in organisations at any time. The real danger is when you find recurring clusters of the signals. If you do spot clusters, don’t despair – many organisational cultures have been redeemed by taking a few simple steps.

Click here to learn about the steps you can take to improve your business culture. 

 

 
Professor Petrina Coventry is Industry Professor and Director of Development at the University of Adelaide, specialising in the area of organisational and business ethics. She is also a Vincent Fairfax Fellow. Image: Benjamin Child | Unsplash

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