Cult or Culture?
How to avoid the Kool-Aid effect
“When a cult grows up it becomes a culture” Jan Shipps
Any culture which is too attached to their view of the world being the only right one, best or even necessary to their survival is at risk of becoming a cult and suppressing their ability to adapt.
The intention of a culture is to create an environment where the goals and purposes of a collective are supported through the ways of thinking, working and behaving of the collective.
The intention of an adaptive culture is to continually evolve ways of thinking, working and behaving to support emerging needs (eg customer, stakeholder, shareholder, societal, environmental needs) and be ahead of and even create disruption and change.
The intention of a cult is to protect current ways of thinking, working and behaving and those who have created the current status quo. This can even happen in organisations who have the goal to become “adaptive” or are far ahead of the curve from a leadership or culture perspective.
There are always clues as to which side of the line between cult and culture an organisation may sit. When the culture has become cult-like, the following are readily observable:
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged, or even punished. Wisdom is the domain of senior leaders and the chosen ones. It is important to recognise the difference between espoused and lived encouragement. For example, we have worked in organisations where the mantra is to question, doubt and dissent and this is encouraged and support in many ways. However, when fundamental aspects of culture or senior leadership views are questioned (sacred cows) people can be isolated or otherwise ejected from the system.
- The organisation sees itself as special, claiming an exalted status for itself, its leadership team, and members. It often has an us-versus-them or elitist mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society. For example, the organisation may justify its polluting of the environment through a mantra like “ putting shareholder interests first”.
- Senior leaders may act as if they are not accountable to any authorities. They may encourage members to act in ways they would have considered unethical before joining the organisation. For example, they may put undue pressure on team members, or provide misleading information to justify recommendations.
- Unhealthy levels of conformity are mandated. This can lead to individuals being forced to compromise their personal wellbeing in order to stay in favour. For example, women expected to wear high heels or team members working 14 hour days and being ever available on email a norm.
At more mature or enlightened organisations, cults particularly around “culture as a sacred cow” CAN still develop and can often be stronger than at less mature stages. These organisations are frontrunners in creating something “new” and “different” often with a high level of ideological fervour. The strong self-belief of these organisations is important in moving them to a more mature stage; the dark side of the cult appears when their strident self-belief inhibits further growth, questioning of the status quo and openness to other world views.
To be truly adaptive, organisations need to recognise that culture is a continual evolution and support dissent, new ideas and recalibrations along their adaptive journey. Bringing together both humility and learning with grounded confidence is an important ability for all organisations at all stages.