Aug 30, 2015

Are Successful Companies The New Cults?

J. Maureen Henderson
August 31, 2015

An influential leader who inspires devotion and demands unquestioning loyalty. Stringent rules around behavior, dress and “proper” attitude that seem baffling or downright sinister to outsiders. A encroaching capacity to control aspects of adherents’ personal lives ranging from the food they eat to when they procreate. A culture that values ostentatious displays of commitment, even at the expense of the well-being and health of the individual. A propensity for fierce public denials when word of their eyebrow-raising practices leaks out. No, I’m not talking about the allegations against Scientology, or even the qualities we ascribed to religious cults in decades past — I’m describing the modern American corporation and how it operates. From their hiring practices and employee policies to how we dissect and discuss their organizational cultures, the high-achieving companies we hold up as industry leaders have achieved cult status. Literally.

Not every successful corporation has cultish qualities, but there are plenty of examples of these tendencies from companies that are household names. There’s Kraft’s refusal to let employees pack rival companies’ food products in their lunch. There’s Zappos’s whole-hog adoption of holacracy (a faddish new management style where there are no managers) and bold proclamation that those who aren’t on board with this regime should start looking for new jobs ASAP. There’s last year’s brouhaha over Facebook and Apple footing the bill for egg freezing for female employees, so that they could put off child-bearing in favor of career productivity. There’s a now defunct internal Wiki that discussed how to live (somewhat) comfortably on-site at the Googleplex for those who can’t separate themselves from their jobs. And then there’s the recent motherlode, a damning New York Times piece on Amazon’s workplace culture. In shades of Stockholm Syndrome, a former executive quoted in the article describes it as “the greatest place I hate to work.”

Of course, framing corporations as cults isn’t a particularly groundbreaking criticism. Search almost any talked-about company plus the word ‘cult’ and you’ll return results ranging from reasoned think pieces to drive-bys from disgruntled employees. Lululemon has been critiqued for being cult-like for years. Ditto, Walmart. A 2001 piece from The Economist describes the company’s Saturday morning meetings as “part evangelical revival, part Oscars, part Broadway show.” Even Amazon’s culture was being savaged long before the NYT weighed in, with a Seattle Weekly first-person piece that initialy ran in 1998 with the headline How I “escaped” from Amazon.cult.

Why do cult-like companies thrive in our current culture? At their most basic level, just like actual cults, they feed a need for order, acceptance, belonging, self-improvement and structure. With religious affiliation and participation rates on the decline in the US and levels of civic engagement waning, we’re looking for something greater than ourselves to believe in and strong, powerful corporate cultures provide that. With strict standards of conduct and clear success criteria, they give us a way of measuring our effort and, by extension, our worth. We know what makes a “good” employee (or disciple) and can understand what we need to do to be deemed “good,” which is a powerful, validating lure in a time when even the highest achievers among us feel a gnawing sense of inadequacy and self-doubt. The sacrifice entailed to get there might be unpleasant or harrowing, but the reward is often commensurate with the effort to be among the chosen few. As Noam Schieber writes in the NYT about the culture of elite law firms:

“The legal profession, one of the most brutal when it comes to pace and time commitment, illuminates the economic logic of a system where a large initial cohort of workers is gradually culled until only a small fraction are left. This small fraction then has access to the enormous wealth and prestige that survivors in this ultimate reality show are granted.”

And the pay-off isn’t just material. In fact, spending days surrounded by fellow believers, participating in group rituals (the bygone Walmart chant comes to mind) and being given a compelling vision to buy into (even if Gawker is dismissive of it) is incredibly compelling when it comes to satisfying a deep need to for community and purpose.

Ultimately, that we look to the business world to fulfill what could be deemed a spiritual need isn’t particularly surprising. As a society, we’ve long romanticized business culture and equated business success to a whole host of virtues, chief among them leadership and fitness for power. Sinclair Lewis was busy brilliantly skewering both our cultural valorization of the businessman and the hollowness of popular religion 90 years ago with works such as Babbitt and Elmer Gantry. Ask an average Trump supporter what they see in him as a candidate (hint: his perceived business acumen frequently tops the list) and you’ll note that very little about how we relate to corporations has changed. Ask a young startup founder about Steve Jobs or Elon Musk and be prepared for a hagiographic ode. In 2015, we’re pledging allegiance to tech companies instead of manufacturers and worshipping CEOs as deities. The cult hysteria of the 60s and 70s may be long past, but our willingness to join exclusive groups with strange customs in search of a sense of belonging, elitism and self-worth is alive and well. We’ve just replaced discussions of the end times with speculation on upcoming IPOs.

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