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Company Culture

Why You Should Put the 'Cult' Back in Culture

You don't need to brainwash your employees, but they should be obsessed with your mission.
Image credit: fstop123 | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Co-founder and CEO of Conversable and Hypergiant

I laugh out loud when I hear executives yammering on and on about building great cultures. It sounds good at first, until you soon realize it’s just a bunch of the same Care Bear speaking points the marketing department dreamed up over a brown bag lunch or stolen from Facebook or Google. This just in: happy hours, Christmas parties, pizza lunches and ping-pong tables do not a culture make.

Related: 10 Examples of Companies With Fantastic Cultures

There’s no shortage of research proving the relationship between company culture and performance. But, most of the “great” cultures out there are only getting half the benefits they could realize if they took it a step further. I’m not here to convince you that you need to believe in culture as the sole performance driver -- but it is a major contributing factor. I’m here to convince you that you need to push culture to a further extreme. Your culture needs to be cult-like.

Before you think I'm asking you to run out and start the next Manson Family, let’s take a closer look at how cults work and what we can learn from them.

No compromises

Cults succeed or fail based on their ability to reprogram how people see the world. If they can’t reprogram you, you don’t get it. They just can’t risk exposing the members to someone who’s not aligned with the core mission.

Related: Elon Musk Puts Potential SpaceX Hires Through a Grueling Interviewing Process One Former Employee Calls a 'Gauntlet'

In contrast, most businesses hire for experience and skills, not alignment to a mission or vision. When it’s unclear if an employee is ideologically and intellectually aligned with the company mission, companies keep them on board and focus on extracting value from their raw skillset. As a result, the typical workforce is pulling in hundreds of different directions. It’s a Ouija board to nowhere.

You don’t need to brainwash your new hires, but you need to hire for people that will be obsessed with the mission. If your hiring process doesn’t vet each candidate's alignment with the vision, mission and ideology, if you don’t see their eyes light up when you wax poetic about the company’s purpose, it should be a hard and fast pass on the candidate.

Don’t compromise on alignment to the mission. Every compromise exposes your cult to more risk.

The promise of the cult

Every cult leader makes extravagant promises to the cult members. Sometimes these are financial rewards, but typically it’s a mental or emotional reward. Central to the whole practice is a promise that submission to the cult’s demands will results in worthwhile upside. This is the key to the success of cults, and it’s often their undoing, too. The leader is writing checks he can’t cash; most of the time, he the last one to drink the proverbial or actual Kool-Aid.

Related: How 5 Companies Found the Perfect Company Culture Within Their Business

In business, we call these promises incentives, and they are tremendously powerful drivers of human behavior. Unfortunately, most incentive schemes are destined to fail. The reason? The incentives reward individual achievement rather than mission-related achievement.

Cults do a tremendous job rewarding the behavior they want to see. They ultimately want the individual to surrender their sense of self to the group, and the rewards for such behavior are significant and delivered promptly.

To make this work for your company, orient all incentives around your mission. Reward work that advances the organization in the right direction rather than arbitrary feats of strength. Make it clear at all levels of the organization that individual achievements are only celebrated when they help advance the collective towards its goals.

Related: What Would Twitter Do? Lessons on Culture From 5 Top Startups

Collective risk and reward

The cultural zeitgeist of an organization must start at the top and to ensure full buy-in, the leadership must be fully committed to the vision and be willing to fully execute. Consider that CEOs of publicly traded companies receive hefty bonuses based on the same performance metrics that lead to no bonuses for senior management.

Also consider that most mid-level employees assume none of the risk in the business. They work, they get paid. If the company has a bad month, they still expect their salary check on the last day of the month.

Incentives and risks are inequitably distributed in most companies. In these companies, the workforce is less obsessed with mission and more preoccupied with comparing pay stubs. The resulting culture is “every man for himself.”

Related: Strange Business Practices From Amazon, Tesla and 8 Other Companies

How do you avoid this fate?

Celebrate achievement as collective achievements. Set near and mid-term goals that require organization-wide collaboration. Reiterate your mission in physical and digital spaces and constantly live out the values necessary to that mission. The realization and embodiment of a fully executed vision by all levels of the organization is culture.

Leaders needs to channel their inner cult leader. If you lead in a manner that embodies the company values and exudes passion for the core mission and directives, if you share risk and reward equitably across the company, you’ll build a culture that absolutely demolishes competition.

Related Video: The Leadership Style You Need to Drive Your Company Culture