Think of an organisation you admire.

Inspiring. Innovative. Inclusive.

Maybe you fell in love with it as a customer. Perhaps their cause resonates with your head and your heart.

There is something about the high energy culture, the close team vibe of the employee community, the inspiring leadership and the compelling mission, the outstanding product and service that calls out to you. You want in. Badly.

Through a combination of hard graft and luck, you snag a coveted role in the company. You did your due diligence before signing on the dotted line. Whilst they were checking your references, you were doing your research too. Heck, you even ‘Glassdoored’ them and no red flags popped up.

Fast forward six months. An Uneasiness has crept up your spine. Now that unease is scurrying up to your mind and is going about the business of taking up residence in your cerebral cortex. You are beginning to have second thoughts about the super cohesive team vibe and the intense company culture.

Cults are more commonplace than you may think

At what point does the behaviour of a magnetic leader and a tightly knit team become overbearing?

Every day your skin prickles, sensing an unseen enemy stalking each human interaction at work.

Consuming. Controlling. Conforming. Cultish?

Let’s be honest – most of what we ‘know’ about cults is informed by sensational stories in the media and movies. Cults are more commonplace than you may think. They are not only found in outlier, off-the-grid communities; but in organisations we interact with every day. Perhaps in your own business or place of work?

Are cult-like behaviours good or bad for you?

Well, that depends on your experience and how you define ‘cult’. Let’s take a closer look at some typical culture characteristics. We are on a mission to find the enemy lurking within your workplace culture.

Ideologically intense

Leaders develop an ideology around their worldview and how they execute their business’ activities. Beliefs are powerfully formed within the community and inspire intense faith and commitment to live and behave in accordance with the belief system.

Purpose-led

The leaders create an emotional environment fuelled by desire, shared purpose and belonging which appeals to a particular individual or which resonates with a particular group. They actively set out to design organisational structures and connections to attract individuals who want to contribute to the cause, to make a difference and to be recognised for their commitment.

Leaders create an emotional environment

How many of these ‘cult-like’ tendencies do you recognise in your organisation?

These characteristics are not necessarily bad. In fact, many companies held up as shining examples of successful, thriving businesses, share many of these strong ‘cultural’ characteristics.

Google. Apple. Virgin.

They are celebrated for their captivating, audacious purpose, intense ideologies, shared beliefs and values which unite the employee community in its commitment to fulfilling the company’s reason for existing. But it can quickly turn ugly. Unexpectedly, you can find yourself nose to nose with the mindset and behaviour of the enemy lurking within your workplace culture.

Tribalism

Our ability to build communities satisfies our collective human need to belong. It also is the root of our survival and high performing teams have been the drivers of success in arenas such as sports and business – so far in our existence.

However, tribalism is a double-edged sword, according to neuroscientist, R Douglas Fields in his Medium article – jam-packed with tonnes of brainpokes.

He explains that:

“early in human evolution our species lived in small groups, where everyone likely knew each other. An encounter with a strange group represented a threat to survival from competition for resources […]

The problem today is that, while this Neolithic neural circuitry was balanced to the level of threat our species experienced when our brain evolved in an environment of relatively infrequent interactions with strange groups, this circuitry is not so well calibrated for the modern world.”

Today, the value of our ‘stranger-danger’ early warning system is like the appendix in the human body. It no longer has any useful function; but when it ruptures, it becomes a life-threatening condition.

High demand cultures.

They operate in stealth mode, increasingly sucking more and more of your time.

One day you realise that you have (perhaps unwittingly) signed over all of your time and energy to the group. Your every waking hour is dedicated to the cause and the success of the organisation.

The closer you inch towards the inner circle and source of power, the need to fully commit increases exponentially. Meanwhile, your involvement with interests and your connection to people outside of the group declines. Resistance is (often) futile.

Workplace cults are more commonplace than you may thinkClick To Tweet

Casualty

The first major casualty is your free will. You abandon the space to be your authentic self, the autonomy to hold a different perspective, the safety to share your unique point of view. This freedom is traded in exchange for a sense of belonging and membership to the community.

When divergent thinking is silenced in favour of group think, the organisation begins to head down an unwholesome and potentially dangerous path.

Silence divergent thinking in favour of group think and a potentially dangerous journey begins. Click To Tweet

This could never happen to you, right? I imagine you believe that fate can only befall individuals who are already susceptible and maybe even weak minded. Think again!

Take a gander at a firsthand account of an actual experience in The Unmistakable Creative podcast in which host Srini Rao interviews Bob Gower, former cult member, now consultant and coach for decidedly mainstream companies.

Inside the Psychology of Cults. In this interview, Gower references Solomon Asch’s fascinating experiments in the 1950s –  The Asch Conformity Experiments – to demonstrate that our confidence might be misplaced. Have a look at the videos yourself.

The Elevator experiment

See how human beings are susceptible to groupthink and find it nearly impossible to resist following the crowd, even when the group behaviour seems silly.

The Line Experiment

The Line Experiment is an eye-opener about how individuals conform to peer pressure – going along with the group even when they know they are in the right and the group is in the wrong.

What can you do to prevent homogeneity’s stranglehold on your organisation?

To the leaders, stewards of organisational culture and the guardians of the employee community; here is your challenge, should you choose to accept it. Step beyond Diversity and be the vanguard for Inclusion.

Diversity is the acceptance and valuing of all forms of difference in individuals. Diverse workplaces strive to ensure a fair representation of race, ability, age, social status, sexual orientation, religion etc. in their employee community.

Inclusion goes beyond the oft-touted monitoring and representation figures. In inclusive organisational cultures employees feel and experience being respected as individuals, are welcomed for the difference they bring and are celebrated for the unique skills and perspectives they contribute to the business.

Be warned, feelings and experiences of inclusion are not tick-box friendly. They are hard to quantify and most employee engagement surveys are simply not up to the task to capture meaningful data.

What you measure matters; but what’s hard to measure matters more.
Bernadette Jiwa, Brand Storyteller, Marketer

How To Get Your Culture Fit for Genuine Inclusion

 6 critical actions to get fit for inclusion.

  1. Begin with yourself. Be courageous and honest about where your natural and learned biases lie. Take stock of your default assumptions and thinking. Develop a consciousness and action to be inclusive in the way you communicate and connect with others in professional, personal and social settings. Learn how Kristen Pressner, HR Executive at Roche, is leading the charge by confronting her own biases.
  2. Cultivate a diverse and inclusive workplace ecosystem where the community members see beauty in difference and value inclusion as a mindset, personal behaviour and a daily practice.

If you put people in an ugly environment, what are you gonna get out of it? Ugly. Beauty in, beauty out. Beauty doesn’t cost any more than ugly. It’s simple.
Ron Finley, Gangsta Gardner interview in The Great Discontent

  1. Nurture a strong purpose-focused community environment that is inspiring, transforming and energising. Fire up the hearts and minds of your members with a reason to believe and instill positive values as their guide. The cornerstone value for inclusion to thrive is trust.
  2. Inspire your employee community by leading with a respect for the individual. Employees want to feel secure in the knowledge that their work has meaning and trust in the relevance of their efforts. Remember that people want to feel seen, heard and valued for their ideas and individual contribution.
  3. Constantly review critical employee experience contact points for inclusivity; for example recruitment marketing activities, communication style and tone of voice, hiring methods, employee contribution recognition and reward, work arrangements on offer to suit different ways of working.
  4. Protect your organisation against the dangerous creep of groupthink and mob mentality by seeking out the views of the different-thinkers, the defectors and, in the bad times, the Whistleblowers. These individuals are key to ensuring that honesty and accountability remain rooted in your culture.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.
Martin Luther King Jr.

Build Your Team Like a Jazz Ensemble. Bring together skilled and committed individuals around a clear purpose. Assign dedicated yet fluid roles.

Build your team like a jazz ensemble. Assign dedicated yet fluid roles.Click To Tweet

Like an artist, each individual employee has the freedom to create their own riff on their assigned role. The team member’s thinking and work style quirks are respected but he/she is accountable to the group.

As the leader, be prepared to learn new skills and manage differently to the way you have in the past. In our rapidly changing world of business and work, you have to be simultaneously planned and spontaneous to fulfill the organisation’s purpose.

Be prepared to learn new skills

You will need a highly developed ability to manage the tension between planned and spontaneous states. This includes a keen sense to intuit when it is time to change to suit the opportunity or challenge of the moment; and respond to demands originating internal or external to the business.

The decision to switch it up, giving your team the latitude to do so as well, is equally informed by feeling and knowing. This is the art of improvisation and a path to get the best from your Jazz Ensemble style team.

Over to you now.

What are the ways you defend your team or organisation against groupthink and stranger-danger mentality? What are the positive and negative cult-like tendencies in your organisation? How are you creating a greenhouse environment where diversity and inclusion can bloom and thrive year round in your organisation?

Share in the comments.

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Think of an organisation you admire. Inspiring. Innovative. Inclusive. Maybe you fell in love with it as a customer. Perhaps their cause resonates with your head and your heart. There is something about the high energy culture, the close team vibe of the employee community, the inspiring leadership and the compelling mission,...
Nicole Antonio-Gadsdon
Nicole Antonio-Gadsdon is an advocate of the craft of Creative HR and a radical activist for putting the ‘human’ before the ‘resources’. She is particularly fond of ruffling Establishment feathers to help revolutionise HR as a valuable business discipline. Her main purpose is to help solopreneurs, organisations and HR pros transform from blah to cooking with gas through her company Aquarius Human Resources Consulting Ltd.
Nicole writes stories about her Creative HR journey and shares tips and discoveries in The HR Rabbit Hole blog.