Can you keep the cult out of culture?

by Sep 22, 2018Work Trends0 comments

Okay, some of you may think Formula 1 racing is a yawn fest. Astonishingly, some even find watching supremely talented sports stars racing the most technologically advanced cars on the planet around a track at death-defying speeds a tad tedious. For others who don’t possess as much chill, there’s a certain admiration for these extremely high-performance teams and the effort it takes to gain even tiny margins as they push beyond man-machine limits.
So, it was with quite a lot of interest that I’ve been watching one of the most successful teams in the sport’s history, Williams Racing, painfully fall from the top of the pile to stone cold last in the rankings. What I’ve found refreshing though in amongst all the bad news is that the team have decided to focus on fixing some internal culture issues that they believe have been at the root of their problems. They’re committing to a long-term journey to rebuild their culture and not go for a knee-jerk quick fix, which in a sport like theirs is a tempting option. Throw money at it, and all will be fine, right?
F1 teams are true hi-tech organisations employing hundreds of people and literally thousands of moving parts must align to achieve success. As an elite sport F1’s iconic teams generally also have cult-like followers. They are loyal to the core, but teams need to grow that fanatical follower base that will stick with them through the hard times. Like Williams, you have to be prepared to craft a culture over time.
I’m definitely not the first or last person to write about the dangers of cult-like cultures, and it seems that culture remains one the hot topics in organisational psychology today and certainly still on the list of top priorities for executives according to surveys by the likes of Deloitte.
One challenge with culture is understanding where to draw the line. When does your culture become too much cult and not enough cultivate? There are some warning signs. Not the least being that cultures emerging off the personalities of charismatic or narcissistic founders easily tend towards cultic. You could argue that Williams in some ways, being a family founded/owned business was at some risk of this. A company built around distinct characters doesn’t necessarily make it cultic, but the power that rests in a founder/owner can impact deeply on culture. Often it’s the founder that sets the tone for what’s truly valued in the organisation and sadly that’s often a ‘my way or the highway’ approach. Try work against this and you’ll soon be identified as a bad culture fit. This is why individuality is not tolerated in any cult. Now most companies are not run on the extreme principles of cults, but strong values used to manipulate people can create the feeling of either fitting in or not.
In some personal experiences, I’ve seen leaders display cult type behaviour that can cause anxiety and fear that ultimately breaks down trust and engagement. Like a leader that valued toughness and strength so much that he would hold special “fight club” sessions for his inner circle over lunchtime in the company gym. Miss a session and you were quickly labelled as weak or not a team player. Or the leader who publicly humiliates a manager in front of their colleagues to make a point. Hiding behind some twisted lesson of ‘upping everyone’s game’, but truthfully destroying someone’s confidence and instilling control by fear. These are just two examples where company cultures form around extreme leadership behaviour to the extent that you either get in line or you fall out of favour and become irrelevant. Luckily these types of examples are pretty obvious to spot, but what about other less obvious warning signs? It’s likely you’re in more of a cult type company when your leadership promote the following:
• Secret group discussions are held behind closed doors where key decisions are made.
• The leadership voice is always the loudest and most prominent in meetings.
• People rarely say no to leadership. Leadership should not be questioned.
• You can never truly switch off. If you’re not available 24/7 you’re not a team player.
• Very little time is spent on the development of people and more on pushing performance at all costs.
• Managers manage by policy and rules and not by engaging people on a personal level.

This is not just authoritarian leadership, this is systematic command and control behaviour that is entrenched into the way things are done at multiple levels.
There are however some really great examples of companies that have managed to blend the coolness of a cult-like following with a cultivating approach to people in the modern workplace. Southwest Airlines, Zappos and Netflix are worth researching. The things they have in common are that they place people at the core of their success. If you want to know how your company will become cool, look around you. It’s the cool people that make companies cool. If we focus on unlocking the full potential of a person to contribute to the culture, we will see some unique and innovative things happen. For one, your culture won’t’ get stuck it will continue to evolve. All this can be done without going against your company’s purpose or mission. That should remain the ultimate attraction for any talent, and underpinned with universally strong values, you can guide your people to express how the culture comes alive. The key is to involve everyone.
So the next time you think about your company ask yourself, does the cult in your culture mean cultivating where you learn and grow, or does it feel like top-down cult loyalty that is pushed by leadership where your voice is seldom heard? Unfortunately only one of these realities will help you reach your full potential.