Last Updated on June 1, 2023
Each organisation has its own “culture,” or set of beliefs and conventions that define what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. A strong workplace culture helps firms recruit and retain highly motivated employees by uniting them around a similar goal, purpose, or cause in the pursuit of long-term success.
However, what appears to be a voluntary alignment can sometimes turn into something more dangerous. Whether CEOs mean it or not, healthy business cultures can readily devolve into corporate cults. Apple, Tesla, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, and Harley-Davidson are just a few examples of corporations that are straddling that delicate line. They’ve all developed cult-like followings among their clients and are progressively encouraging cult-like behaviours among their employees.
The degree of managerial influence over employees’ ideas and conduct is what defines a corporate cult. Employees are assessed for “fit” during the recruitment process. Once they’re in, they’ll notice that onboarding procedures and reward systems tend to emphasise the importance of alignment. This influences how people interact, make judgments, evaluate one another, and make decisions about hiring, promotion, and termination. Individualism is discouraged in such an environment, and groupthink reigns supreme. Some cult-like businesses go so far as to use the workplace as a substitute for family and community, isolating their employees from those support networks (intentionally or not).
How can you tell when a company is becoming a cult?
Opposing individualistic thinking/ideas
Employees at all levels with clearly defined jobs are common in both large and small businesses. With a “the buck stops here” mindset, quality leaders realise the significance of egalitarian, democratic decision-making. Nonetheless, astute leaders recognise that dissenting voices can provide vital feedback and should not be ignored in the process. Risk-takers who dare to challenge the established quo may soon lose their jobs if their thinking and input diverge too much from the herd at a cult.
Expecting dogmatic devotion to the company culture and/or business system
A certain level of uniformity is usually essential in order for a company to run successfully. In a cult, however, obsessive devotion to irrational, off-kilter (or even unethical/illegal) company rules is more likely, which ultimately serve to concentrate power and influence in the hands of the few. You may also come across rigid company processes that never adjust to shifting market conditions. The unstated ethos at these organisations may be “follow the rules and you’ll be alright.” The “XYZ Business System” gradually transforms into dogma, a noun, a verb, an adjective, and the rationale for and justification for all actions (or inactions) performed in the organisation, obviating the need for individual critical thinking skills.
Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders (blind allegiance)
Cultic organisations frequently require complete devotion to their leaders. They may deter constructive questioning of major leaders’ decisions, as well as evident cronyism. Hiring and firing practise at such companies are frequently predicated on how effectively you keep up with senior decision-makers. Red flags should be raised when charismatic leaders demand constant “trust” in their own personal attraction.
“Canceling” employees and penalizing them for leaving
Whether we like it or not, the “cancel culture” is here. The “cancelled” at a cultic job are pushed to pack their desk stuff and flee the front door faster than you can say, “You win. I quit,” similar to expressing unpopular ideas and being ostracised for them. Nobody wants to be dismissed, undervalued, or even blacklisted by their peers. Cancel (cult)ures do just that, especially to their most talented, competitive, and up-and-coming personnel.
Not respecting boundaries or individuals’ personal lives/situations
It’s critical to have a professional demeanour at work. Regardless, everyone has a private life that may include close relatives. Time away from work is required to maintain and cultivate these relationships. Both men and women may require additional time to raise their children. Mothers-to-be and new mothers may require family leave. In fact, it is required by law. Corporate regulations that don’t take into account your personal emergencies or other pressing circumstances aren’t just unhealthy work environments. Their leave policies could be unethical, if not outright unlawful.
Tips to avoid joining a tech cult
Talk with people at all levels who left the company
Prospective employees and new hires are prone to forgetting their homework. It is possible to determine whether a company’s culture is cultic by speaking with former employees. It’s possible that they all had comparable reasons for quitting or being fired. This type of footwork is required of you in any case.
Talk with the employees of their competitors
In most industries, it’s a tiny world. Employees from one company frequently leave and are employed by a competitor. Past employees and others may be difficult to locate or unwilling to speak openly about their experiences with a stranger, but if you detect fear in their ability to speak freely about the organisation, they may have worked for (or done business with) a cult rather than a more typical company culture.
Research them in the news, on their website and on social media
Your organisation may be frequently in the news for no good reason. Take some time to run a fast Google search once more. Learn about their future or current legal action. You may have discovered a cultic corporation if you detect trends related to any type of “shady” activity.
It’s generally given away on websites. Non-reputable, “non-cultic” businesses find it difficult to hide behind a positive public image. If their website has charismatic leaders, unrealistic claims or expectations, or just seems “wrong,” they should be avoided.
Examine the company’s Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. Take a look at what their competitors, workers, and customers have to say about them. You might be astonished or disappointed
But should startups be run like cults?
Some individuals believe that a startup is a group of people working together to accomplish a goal and that a healthy culture is just how that appears on the inside. They believe that members of a startup are supposed to give 150% of themselves to the company for them to collectively achieve the company goals. They reason that the company’s success is the employees’ success and otherwise.
Members of the most extreme sort of organisation shut out the outside world and only interact with fellow members. Cults are a term we use to describe such organisations. From the outside, cultures of absolute dedication appear insane. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, should take extreme devotion cultures seriously. The best startups could be classified as slightly less radical cults. The most significant distinction is that cults are frequently mistaken for something crucial. A successful startup’s employees are dead on about something that others have missed.
In the end, I think it is safe to say that slowly but surely, the tech industry is becoming somewhat cult-like. Some startup companies are leaning towards it a bit more than others but the culture is growing. All that’s left is for you to ask yourself if you want to join the cult of overly dedicated employees or not.
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