Is Your Or­gan­i­sa­tion a Cult?

Business a.m. - - EXECUTIVE KNOWLEDGE SERIES - Man­fred F. R. Kets de Vries

At the most fun­da­men­tal level, cults ful­fil our hu­man search for mean­ing. They of­fer clear and ab­so­lute an­swers to dif­fi­cult ques­tions such as the mean­ing of life

WH Y WOULD ANY­ONE BE at­tracted to a cult? Most quiver at the thought of the Man­son fam­ily, the Heaven’s Gate mil­lenar­ian cult or the Jon­estown cult, whose fa­nati­cism led to either mur­der or mass sui­cide. Of course, cults can also take some­what more in­nocu­ous forms such as the Hare Kr­ish­nas, New Age groups or even cults of per­son­al­ity or gu­rus.

More broadly, a cult is de­fined as “great devo­tion to a per­son, idea, ob­ject, move­ment, or work”. As such, po­lit­i­cal group­ings, life­style groups, crim­i­nal as­so­ci­a­tions and even po­lit­i­cal regimes may also be con­sid­ered forms of cults. Many busi­nesses have cult-like char­ac­ter­is­tics as well. Th­ese in­clude in­flu­en­tial lead­ers who in­spire devo­tion and de­mand loy­alty; an in­ward-look­ing cor­po­rate cul­ture; strin­gent rules re­gard­ing be­hav­iour; and in­tol­er­ance of de­vi­a­tion from the es­tab­lished norms.

At the most fun­da­men­tal level, cults ful­fil our hu­man search for mean­ing. They of­fer clear and ab­so­lute an­swers to dif­fi­cult ques­tions such as the mean­ing of life, good vs. evil, re­li­gious mat- ters, pol­i­tics, etc. In ad­di­tion, cults feed our need for struc­ture and or­der. Some peo­ple join cults sim­ply out of lone­li­ness and a de­sire to be part of some­thing big­ger than them­selves.

Cult lead­ers know how to speak to th­ese ba­sic de­sires. Masters of mind con­trol, th­ese “charm­ing predators” are skilled at ex­ploit­ing their po­ten­tial con­verts’ anx­i­eties. They ex­cel at mak­ing new re­cruits feel loved and im­por­tant, telling them ex­actly what they like to hear. Th­ese charm­ers make their fol­low­ers be­lieve in all kinds of out­landish con­cepts, such as com­plete fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity, con­stant peace of mind, per­fect health and even eter­nal life. Their power lies in the pro­mo­tion of ideas that are sim­ple and seem to make sense – the ex­act opposite of the am­bi­gu­ity, con­tra­dic­tion and un­cer­tainty of day-to­day


Un­sur­pris­ingly, many cult lead­ers ra­di­ate charisma, se­duc­ing devo­tees with a siren song. But be­hind this ve­neer of charm, many cult lead­ers pos­sess anti-so­cial and even psy­cho­pathic per­son­al­ity traits.

The psy­cho­dy­nam­ics of cults

Com­plex psy­cho­log­i­cal dy­nam­ics are at play in the cre­ation of a cult. For ex­am­ple, cults take ad­van­tage of hu­mankind’s de­sire to en­gage in mag­i­cal think­ing. Cult lead­ers are of­ten be­stowed with “mag­i­cal pow­ers”, par­al­lel to chil­dren’s early per­cep­tions of their par­ents as om­nipresent and in con­trol of their uni­verse. In a sim­i­lar vein, mem­bers of a cult regress and de­fer to their lead­ers to shape their thoughts and world view. This en­ables cult lead­ers to prop­a­gate lies and dis­tor­tions to the point where their fol­low­ers can no longer dis­tin­guish be­tween what’s real and what’s imag­ined.

To main­tain ab­so­lute con­trol, cult lead­ers en­cour­age their fol­low­ers to sever ties with the out­side world. An ef­fec­tive tech­nique to iso­late cult mem­bers is to prop­a­gate para­noid think­ing through an “us vs. them” men­tal­ity – where “them” are fam­i­lies or even the gov­ern­ment por­trayed as a villain, and “us” is the cult as a safe har­bour. Cut off from their for­mer con­nec­tions, con­verts be­come even more de­pen­dent on the cult to meet their phys­i­cal and emo­tional needs. That is why it is so dif­fi­cult to leave a cult or an abu­sive, cult-like re­la­tion­ship.

De­spite all of this, cult mem­bers are of­ten un­aware of their sit­u­a­tion and re­main un­der the im­pres­sion that they are act­ing on their own ini­tia­tive. Al­though the con­trary is ob­vi­ous to out­siders, fol­low­ers may have lit­tle idea of what has hap­pened to them. The walls of their self-im­posed prison are in­vis­i­ble.

Cult-like or­gan­i­sa­tions

As men­tioned ear­lier, many so­cial and cor­po­rate en­ti­ties pos­sess cult-like char­ac­ter­is­tics. Al­though less in­tru­sive com­pared to re­li­gious cults, th­ese en­ti­ties also en­gage in sim­i­lar forms of the con­ver­sion process. For ex­am­ple, many busi­ness or­gan­i­sa­tions prop­a­gate com­mand­ing ide­olo­gies and cul­tural val­ues. While pro­vid­ing their em­ploy­ees with a sense of mean­ing, pur­pose and be­long­ing, they also re­quire a strict ad­her­ence to a set of be­liefs. Dis­senters are swiftly pun­ished.

Some of th­ese or­gan­i­sa­tions have charis­matic lead­ers with whom em­ploy­ees can eas­ily iden­tify. The rank and file can be tempted to look up to th­ese lead­ers as mod­els of how they should act, think and feel. Due to the na­ture of their so­cial­i­sa­tion pro­cesses, em­ploy­ees can be­come so emo­tion­ally bound to their firm that work soon be­comes more im­por­tant than fam­ily and com­mu­nity.

Just like in bona fide cults, or­gan­i­sa­tions can breed para­noid think­ing. Cor­po­rate iden­tity is of­ten drawn in op­po­si­tion to hos­tile out­side forces, mak­ing “us vs. them” be­hav­iour the norm. Th­ese cult-like or­gan­i­sa­tions are not known for en­cour­ag­ing creative think­ing. Dogma and mind con­trol sti­fle the shar­ing of ideas, opin­ions and con­struc­tive criticism.

We should all be on guard for cult-like or­gan­i­sa­tions. To re­sist the siren call, we need to be vig­i­lant. We are each re­spon­si­ble for sus­tain­ing our abil­ity to dis­tin­guish dem­a­goguery from facts. We need to re­ject black-and-white think­ing and seek ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to en­gage in healthy de­bate. When prob­lems crop up, dis­cern the ob­jec­tive is­sues at hand, ex­am­ine all an­gles and raise above scape­goat­ing.

Lastly, let’s ap­pre­ci­ate those thought­ful lead­ers who en­cour­age crit­i­cal think­ing, prize sound judg­ment, value in­di­vid­u­al­ity and ra­di­ate au­then­tic­ity. Af­ter all, the acid

test of good lead­er­ship is the abil­ity to un­lock the po­ten­tial of fol­low­ers to make them bet­ter, not en­slave them.

Man­fred F. R. Kets de Vries is the Dis­tin­guished Clin­i­cal Pro­fes­sor of Lead­er­ship De­vel­op­ment & Or­gan­i­sa­tional Change at INSEAD and the Raoul de Vitry d’Avau­court Chaired Pro­fes­sor of Lead­er­ship De­vel­op­ment, Emer­i­tus. He is the founder of INSEAD’s Global Lead­er­ship Cen­tre and the Pro­gramme Di­rec­tor of The Chal­lenge of Lead­er­ship, one of INSEAD’s top Ex­ec­u­tive Ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes.

Pro­fes­sor Kets de Vries’s most re­cent books are: Down the Rabbit Hole of Lead­er­ship: Lead­er­ship Pathol­ogy of Ev­ery­day Life; You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger: Ex­ec­u­tive Coach­ing Chal­lenges; Telling Fairy Tales in the Board­room: How to Make Sure Your Or­gan­i­sa­tion Lives Hap­pily Ever Af­ter; and Rid­ing the Lead­er­ship Roller­coaster: An Ob­server’s Guide. “This ar­ti­cle is re­pub­lished cour­tesy of INSEAD Knowl­edge(http://knowl­ Copy­right INSEAD 2018

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