When your company is looking more and more like a cult

02 janv. 2024


When your company is looking more and more like a cult
Kévin Corbel

Journaliste Modern Work

Onboarding, team building, and promoting the company’s brand are common in the corporate world. However, taken to the extreme, they can come to resemble the practices seen in cults.

Hundreds or even thousands of people meet every day to work together. They have a shared vision and their own codes of behavior and a charismatic leader at the helm. Does this remind you of Raëlism, Scientology, or other sects that sometimes hit the headlines? This description could also apply to the corporate world where the methods used by managers and human resources (HR) staff to enforce employee bonding and efficiency aren’t so different from those used by cults.

We’re not saying that companies are dangerous entities that manipulate their employees. On the contrary, the vast majority have good intentions. No, it’s about drawing a comparison so as to examine the connection between the individual and the collective – and the role of free will in business. (From an HR perspective, this is also an opportunity to highlight missteps so they can avoid crossing over to the dark side.)

1. Onboarding that goes too far

The onboarding process for new employees and their familiarization with the company and its values starts even before the first day. New hires learn how the company is organized, and how their coworkers communicate, think, and even dress by reading and watching content and attending meetings. The goal of onboarding is to help them to assimilate and assist them in their new roles. It’s an essential part of the hiring process that will have an impact on loyalty and retention.

But what happens if group dynamics are prioritized at the expense of individuality? In that case, new employees may feel like they’re sacrificing part of themselves to adapt to the norms of an overly ambitious group. If fitting into corporate culture is pushed too much, especially during the first few weeks when new hires are trying to make a good impression on managers, their team, and the rest of the company, the balance can be upset. When new employees are inundated with information and urged to fit in without time for reflection, it’s easy to see how corporate life can seem a bit like a cult.

Staying on track

Remember, the onboarding process should provide new staff with everything they need to understand the ‘jungle’ they’re entering. To avoid pitfalls, it’s important to maintain a balance between group dynamics and respect for individuality. Personalized support, adjustments based on continuous feedback, sufficient adaptation time, promotion of a diversity of opinions, and flexibility during onboarding are essential. Ensuring the onboarding process reflects the company’s DNA without imposing too much conformity creates an environment where employees can adapt and authentically contribute to the company culture.

2. Pushing employee advocacy

Many staff are encouraged to promote their employer’s business by sporting branded clothing, posting about the organization on social media, or submitting job referrals to the company; this is called employee advocacy. The goal is simple: boost the brand by relying on the best workforce available – the company’s own! However, this approach can be problematic if employees feel forced to talk positively about their organization publicly or on social media. Plus, not everyone wants the same standardized photo in company colors on their LinkedIn profile.

Taking it to the extreme, companies that push employee advocacy can seem like influential leaders who depend on their followers to recruit new supporters, creating a cycle of praise for the organization. “These groups are intent on proselytizing,” explains Dr Jokthan Guivarch, a child psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of victims of cults. Companies should not follow the lead of cults on this; they need to strike a balance.

Staying on track

Pushing employees to advertise the company can hurt the brand’s image paradoxically. To prevent this type of backlash, it’s important to communicate the employee advocacy strategy clearly. Then encourage staff to get involved by congratulating or rewarding those who do, but steer clear of trying to guilt-trip or push those who don’t want to take part. Legally, employees are not obligated to become their company’s ambassadors.

3. Opaque jargon

To set themselves apart, some companies invent words or expressions to describe roles, practices, or events that build corporate culture. For example, Disney doesn’t have employees but rather cast members, and the people who design theme park attractions are not engineers but imagineers. All employees within the company speak the same language, a dialect that can strengthen their sense of belonging but when overused is incomprehensible to outsiders.

In severe cases, cults invent words or hijack their initial meaning. They aim to legitimize their belief in powerful gods, alternative medicine, or a guru’s omnipotence, for example. Followers feel attached to a community that, even as it brings them together, excludes them from the rest of the world.

Staying on track

While inventing words or expressions can give genuine identity to a company and unite a team, don’t abuse it. Keep wording simple and make sure the title of the next team-building or company event doesn’t sound too much like an inside joke but a term that everyone, including newcomers and those outside the company, can understand.

4. An omnipresent leader

What would a company be without its chief executive? This charismatic person may have imposed a new idea, product or brand on the world. Some CEOs, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, are as famous as Brad Pitt or Beyoncé. Loved and feared in equal measure, these big bosses – and their supposed genius – engender both admiration and criticism.

Yet adulation can easily turn into fanaticism, especially given the many spin-off products and media around these ‘pioneers.’ Biographies, biopics, and TV shows are created to make us love them, but the idealization of leaders can push teams to abandon critical thinking and restrict their creativity to conform to a leader’s way of thinking – much like those in a cult who must follow their guru. Delphine Guérard, a psychologist specializing in helping victims of sects, says, “Certain management techniques are destructive because they’re based on manipulation, and this constrains, exhausts, or even disqualifies and crushes others. The person is no longer expected to think, but to act for the cause.”

Staying on track

It’s important to promote diversity in a team. Don’t glorify the leader, alone in their ivory tower, because this could lead to a restriction in creative thinking and free will. CEOs are people like everyone else, with flaws and faults. Putting people at the center of business relationships, through informal discussions and events, helps demystify the image of those at the top of the organization without compromising their legitimacy.

5. A company that is never far away

It’s rare, but some large companies herd their employees into specific geographical areas, usually close to the workplace, to increase productivity. In the first half of the 20th century, Henry Ford paid his employees more than the average American salary to encourage them to settle in suburban neighborhoods near Detroit and keep them close to his factories. In the 1920s, Ford built Fordlândia, a city by the Rio Tapajós river in Brazil. His goal was to exploit the natural rubber offered by the surrounding trees through on-site teams and factories. Ford also tried to impose the American way of life on the locals, but that failed. More recently, Elon Musk announced plans to create a town for his employees: Snailbrook. If that plan comes to fruition, the town near Austin, Texas will accommodate employees of SpaceX and The Boring Company.

While this trend of gathering a workforce together geographically can have a positive impact on productivity and employee cohesion, it can also promote isolation. To extend the metaphor: some cults operate on the idea of a community huddled in a single place, like the Manson Family in the late 1960s. (And we know how that ended.)

Staying on track

While this practice is still uncommon, it echoes other more common – and not always legal – practices, illustrating the desire of some leaders to monitor and control their teams. It also recalls the sudden about-face on teleworking by some companies, which now favor the benefits of in-person working instead, and it raises questions about the boundaries between professional and personal life.

Even though CEOs may find themselves acting like control freaks or intrusive gurus at times, building a city for company employees is probably not on their radar. However, before overstepping the mark, why not restore a little trust by keeping a little distance from the team? They say it creates value, especially in Finland, which has been named the world’s happiest country – again.

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

Photo: Thomas Decamps for Welcome to the Jungle

Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram to get our latest articles every day, and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter!

Les thématiques abordées