Companies and cults: What’s the difference?

The word “follower” has changed a lot in the past couple of centuries. Once a synonym for Christian, it now refers to those who admire influencers, public figures, social media accounts, and Big Tech bosses. If your corporate job is starting to look a little cultish for your liking, just look out for the language…

No founder has gone full unicorn without infectious enthusiasm, an almost prophetic “vision”, and the ability to recruit world-class talent into their mission. 

It’s also nice to feel like you’re part of something. 

Many of us don’t go to church anymore. The pandemic decimated our social lives, as did moving across cities or countries for jobs or universities, as did decreasingly conventional attitudes to family, friendship, and “fitting in”. 

When it comes to cultish working communities and the sense of belonging that comes with them, you can see the appeal.

But the stereotypical Silicon Valley, drink-the-Kool-Aid lifestyle is rapidly being revealed as problematic, prejudiced, and poorly ageing. 

Good cult, bad cult

Original PayPal Mafia member Peter Thiel preaches in Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future: “Taking a merely professional view of the workplace, in which free agents check in and out on a transactional basis, is worse than cold: it’s not even rational”. 

Thiel goes a step further to assert we’ve “given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered”.

In other words: if your job is just a job to you, you’re missing out on a fundamental human experience. 

We wonder who that kind of mindset could possibly serve.  

The underlying problem with cultish cultures is that they’re designed to give the worker everything they “want” instead of what they need i.e. a living wage. They’ll pay for your breakfast and gym membership and your first beer on a Friday and ask: “Why do you need more money when you have all these perks?” 

Even more intoxicatingly, a purpose?

It gets worse.

Written in 2014, Thiel’s assertion that “Everyone at your company should be different in the same way – a tribe of like-minded people fiercely devoted to the company’s mission” sounds laughably outdated. 

We prefer “a rising tide lifts all boats”. When you do good, hire fairly, and listen to diverse perspectives, you don’t need to sell anyone a pipe dream. 

Spot the cult 

Luckily, the Harvard Business Review outlines some warning signs that a culture-led startup might be something a little more sinister. 

One: language. 

Disney staff are not employees but “cast members”. Apple store assistants are “geniuses”. SocialChain doesn’t have HR – it has a “Head of Happiness”. Giving people an inflated sense of self is step number one in indoctrination. 

Two: cliques. 

Cultish companies have cliques, usually formed largely of higher ups and big personalities. To be in the clique, you have to know the codes – the “right” ways to speak, behave, and in some cases, look. 

The “those who get it, get it, and those who don’t, don’t” mentality is hugely disempowering to anyone from outside the core culture.

Classic examples include the “pale, male, and posh” demographic of British journalists, the creative industries that are so poorly paid only privileged people can afford to work in them, and hyper-social “work hard, play hard” culture where neurodivergent people end up pushed out of promotions because they don’t come for pints. 

Three: rituals.

The diary of any cultish workplace will be peppered with “fun” events, traditions, and rituals. Non-mandatory activities and after-work drinks, in-jokes, and weird traditions that are secretly mandatory but employers know they’re on thin legal ice if they say it out loud.  

Four: charisma. 

You can’t have a cult without a charismatic leader, and in the world of tech startups, we’re spoilt for choice. Jobs, Neumann, and Musk spring to mind. 

Perhaps lesser known is Hampton Farms founder Josh Tetrick, accused of leading a “cult of delusion” and embroiled in questionable practices, several federal investigations, and the collective firing of his CTO, VP of R&D, and VP of BD when they tried to give more control to investors. 

Masking the shady practices were workers being given framed designs of Tetrick’s “farm of the future” to hang in their homes, famed slogans like “be a gorilla” scribbled on the walls in chalk (check for the ‘language’ box), and a workshop for employees to “practise reciting their own personal journey toward embracing the company’s mission”.

Narcissistic streaks are not uncommon among the highly ambitious and entrepreneurial. 

Many will meet an early downfall if it’s not tempered with a dose of rationalism and self-awareness. But all too often, they are generating too much money for investors (or instilling too much fear in staff) to be held back. 

No one comes in swinging

Companies won’t call it a cult on the job description. They’ll call it a “family”. 

It’s a nice idea – especially for those of us seeking purpose or feeling disconnected in our personal lives. But no workplace can ever offer unconditional care and protection, and it’s dangerous and misleading to pressure employees into this level of familiarity.

If there’s any instance in which you need lines, it’s between the professional and the personal. Familial workplaces blur them – deliberately. 

At best you’ll be overworked. At worst, you’ll be coerced into complicity with unethical behaviours. And then you’ll be fired if you don’t fit the mould.

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