Is Your Business Culture a Cult?

Is your business' sworkplace a little too cult-like? Cult-expert and former cult-recruit Steve Hassan may think so.
Business and Workplace Author, Speaker, and Consultant,
December 13, 2012

What does Steve Hassan have to do with the workplace? In a recent piece in Canada’s The Globe and Mail, writer Harvey Schachter uses Hassan as the subject in his column on work-life balance. 

Steve Hassan is a mental health counselor who's an expert on cults. Hassan knows what he’s talking about. He entered the Unification Church at age 19 and spent several years recruiting and indoctrinating new members, as well as performing fundraising and campaigning duties. After rising to the rank of assistant director of the Unification Church at its national headquarters, Hassan was severely injured in a traffic accident related to his duties. While he was in the hospital, his parents took the opportunity to “deprogram” him.

It worked. Hassan left the church and is now a well-respected international authority on the effects of cult membership.

Taking a look at Hassan’s BITE Model (Behavior, Information, Thought, Emotion) of cult-like organizations, it’s immediately apparent why Schachter would draw a parallel to some of today’s workplaces.

Behavior Control

Cults regulate the individual’s physical reality, including where he lives, what he wears and how much sleep he gets. Individualism is discouraged, while group-think prevails. The individual must make major time commitments for indoctrination sessions and group rituals, be obedient, and accept having little time for leisure, entertainment or vacations.

Information Control

Leaders decide who needs to know what. Information is distorted or held back, to serve the needs of the organization. Access to outside information is discouraged, such as critical analysis of the organization or meeting with disgruntled former members.

Thought Control

The member is expected to accept the organizational doctrine as the truth. Only good thoughts are encouraged, and negative thoughts are shut down. Questions that are critical of leaders are not seen as legitimate.

Emotion Control

Fear abounds over thinking for yourself. Members are indoctrinated into having a phobia about leaving the group or questioning the leader. Those who leave are shunned, and the belief grows that there is no legitimate reason for leaving.

Elements of the BITE Model are so prevalent that it’s a cliché to say you’re “drinking the Kool-Aid” by passionately advocating the virtues of your company. And it’s easy to see how a business could become like a cult: Take a charismatic but authoritarian leader, add a group of physically isolated, overworked and frightened employees, and stir. 

How to Break the Mold

If you’re a business owner, it’s worth considering if any aspects of your culture are psychologically coercive. For instance, are your employees always treated as individuals who each have something unique to contribute to your mission? Are relationships give-and-take and mutually respectful? Do your people genuinely believe in your vision, or do they merely parrot it back to you without thinking? Are they encouraged to have personal lives? Do they stay because they want to, or because they're afraid of what would happen if they left?

Should the answers to any of these questions give you pause, there’s no need to call an urgent all-staff meeting and announce that you're freeing everyone from the cult. In fact, a low-key approach will probably be much more effective.  

Leveraging the Organizational Culture Assessment, which provides a blueprint of your preferred culture and helps you identify the right steps to take, is a good place to start. Encourage your staff to discuss with you openly and honestly, and read between the lines. Empowered employees will be able to offer constructive feedback, while fearful ones may take a bit more coaxing.  

Read more articles on company culture

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

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