The 13 steps to building a cult-like company culture
Most people know thephrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” but not many people know where it originatesfrom. On November 18 1978, Jim Jones, the founder and leader of the People’s Temple cult,convinced his followers that the end of the world was upon them and 909 men,women and children committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide mixed with KoolAid — hence the metaphorical advice not to drink it! Over the years there havebeen other evil cults like the Branch Davidians, The Manson Family, TwelveTribes and Heaven’s Gate, which have made the news for all the wrong reasons.
A lot of people areunderstandably uncomfortable with the word cult. However, as Jim Collinsfound in his research for his 1994 book Built to Last, “Architects ofvisionary companies don’t just trust in good intentions or values statements; they build cult-likecultures around their core ideologies.”
In this article I’mgoing to outline the thirteen steps a company needs to take to create acult-like culture, but before I do, we need to explore why a company would wantto do that given how evil and exploitative many cults are.
There’s a hugedifference between creating a cult and building a cult-like culture.
The good news is, it’s pretty muchimpossible for a business to become a full-blown cult. Firstly, a proper cult —the evil, exploitative type — relies on manipulative brainwashing techniques, whichrestricts or ideally eliminates its members of their individuality and capacityfor independent thought.
Aside from the factthat brainwashing is completely unethical, in order to deal with theincreasingly volatile and uncertain business environment nowadays, leaders needtheir people to be able to think independently and come up with their own ideasand solutions to problems. Eliminating a team member’s capability forindependent thought would not only be inhumane; in purely business terms (ifthere is such a thing), it would also be counterproductive and would go a longway to destroying the company.
Cults also, for themost part, “sell” self-improvement and salvation, which businesses don’t — evenin companies that aim to create products and services that decidedly improvepeople’s lives. A key differentiator between companies and cults is that cultsdo not invite any kind of questioning or critical thought around what they’redoing, whilst companies — especially those dedicated to growth — are oftenabsolutely focused on proactively seeking customer or client feedback on theirproducts, services and marketing.
However, even thoughcults and companies have a series of opposing goals, there is one key areawhere they overlap: they both strive to foster incredible commitment, loyaltyor dedication from their followers. In a business, this means both customers andemployees.
A company can legitimatelyand ethically develop a cult-like commitment from its employees, and the verybest companies do. Jim Collins states in the aforementioned Built toLast that a key step in creating a cult-like environment is theconstruction of a unique language around what you do. Next Jump, profiled inthis blog post, does a great job of that, as has Disney.
“Walt Disney,” writesJim Collins, “created an internal language to reinforce his company's ideology.Disneyland employees are ‘cast members.’ Customers are ‘guests.’ Jobs are ‘parts'in a ‘performance.’ Disney required — as the company still does to this day — thatall new employees go through a ‘Disney Traditions’ orientation course, in whichthey learn the company's business is to make people happy.”
Disney, of course,isn’t alone: other extremely successful companies have also managed to build acult-like following from their employees and customers. Companies like Apple,Tesla, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom and Harley Davidson spring tomind. If you look below the surface you will find that most of the techniques usedby hardcore cults to enlist an unwaveringly loyal membership are also to someextent in operation in these businesses — although for a differentpurpose.
Here are the 13 steps tobuilding a cult-like company culture:
1. Surface and define the company’s core values andcombine them with one or more of the following: mission, vision, principlesand/or purpose
2. Deliberately embed the culture into thecompany — into policies, processes and procedure, as well as across allfunctions
3. Agree on the behaviours that you and yourteam expect from one another
4. Develop a purpose beyond the commercialrationale of the company
5. Create myths, stories and legends, usingsymbols and habits to reinforce the company culture
6. Create an environment that celebratesachievement, results and living the culture
7. Create a sense of camaraderie, communityand most importantly belonging
8. Remove inhibitions and allow your peopleto express — and be — themselves
9. Build a unique group identity and create asense of exclusivity within your team
10. Position your people and the company asdifferent from the rest
11. Develop an internal company-specific languagefor what you do
12. Codify mutual dependence, mutualresponsibility and create a shared sense of obligation
13. Create anenvironment where your people can work efficiently, self-actualise, make adifference and fulfil their potential.
If you succeed inbuilding a cult-like culture similar to the way that Apple, Tesla, Zappos,Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom and Harley Davidson have, you will experienceloyalty, dedication and commitment from your employees (and customers) that isway beyond the norm.
And maybe, in thoseinstances, it’s actually a pretty good idea to drink the Kool-Aid, after all.