Cult or Culture!

Have been finally enjoying the journey of being inducted into a “culture” having worked for cult brands for many years. There is so much written about Apple and its genius founder Steve Job’s contribution in making it a CULT brand. So picking up a debate on “cult vs culture” is only natural. Have been ironing out the contradictions and how these very often confused yet discussed concepts impact the building of organisations and brands.

It is an interesting debate as clearly every great company has cult-like features in its organization culture. To understand this better, perhaps it may be useful to provide my understanding of the word Cult.

Typical features of a Cult are

a)     strong leadership and the followers/group members not only buy into the group’s philosophy but we often see a personal allegiance to the leader; this is one reason why the cult conjures a slightly negative perception as it is difficult to sustain this level of allegiance beyond that leader’s tenure;

b)     clear distinction between in-group and out-group, the sense of belonging is clearly established both as entry criteria and for membership continuance criteria, and any violation of the key criteria invites sanctions immediately including ostracism and expulsion. In fact, interestingly, the word Ostracism comes from the Greek practice of voting out a member as a way of punishment. So, a strong sense of belonging is essential and is cultivated, nurtured and enforced. Maybe cults are perceived to be “excluding” rather than ” including”

Some experts point out that Cults are extremely rigid, whereas Cultures are flexible and adapt better to changing circumstances. Globalization and Technology are two great forces that are at once a threat and an opportunity at the same time – Cults may be easier to manage in defined geographies/communities, and it becomes an awesome challenge as the boundaries expand and its imperative to include diverse geographies and communities. Some experts have added language to this mix, not to mention the “perceived sense of isolation” of a cult with the mainstream. This is one reason we find that cultures survive longer in global companies rather than cults.

Cultures are all encompassing, inclusive and celebrate shared sense of beliefs, values, customs, practices – typically placing the group’s interests before self interest. The Amish group in Pennsylvania is a good example that has thrived over 300 years.

In my view, perhaps we need a bit of both. Cult-like features in a global company reinforce a particular way of serving customers, and achieves a level of QUICK integration otherwise difficult in such a global sprawl. This is why we find companies like Apple, HP, IBM, Disney, etc spend plenty of time on achieving some common elements like language (choice of words – for eg, customers are called Guests at Disney), common practices, etc.  Similarly, the Financial Services industry has its own set of rules and norms, and conformance is critical to both entry and continuance. Newcomers are indoctrinated and the emphasis is on achieving a tight fit between organizational norms and the members’ behaviours.

A cult per se has a limited time span as it does not adapt to the changing circumstances. Globalization has also brought various nationalities, cultures and habits together, and also brought in a healthy mix of interracial marriages. This growing trend towards greater tolerance of others’ beliefs/habits is only likely to strengthen in the future. A culture defines the tone, the intent but accepts a different language.

What does all this mean for organizations?

Managers need to develop a global mindset and assist staff to integrate with the company’s norms whilst ensuring that employee does not lose her individuality.  The answers are no longer at the end of the spectrum, rather they are converging towards the middle – hence we need to strike the right balance as opposed to choosing one or the other (unless of course we are talking about illegal behaviours and actions where there is a black-and-white rule to follow).

The younger set of managers may be more adept at achieving this, as they themselves are the product of forces such as globalization/technology – it is not unusual in many global companies to find managers who have studied in 2 countries, lived in 3 countries or speak multiple languages. Labour mobility is quite common these days, so the people transport their ideas, cultures and behaviours. As the next generation of employees takes advantage of similar trends and opportunities unleashed by these global forces, they will be far more demanding of their managers – anyone paying lip service to such notions and trying to impose a cult at the expense of culture, may not last the run.

In short, what I see is that a Cult mentality is required at a startup stage, and the as the business evolves into a global organization, we need more culture-like features such as integration. However, it is true that some cult-like features will always be present in any organization culture as without such a tight-knit fabric, thousands of employees in different parts of the world will not have any way to understand the mission of the company, and about their work helps the company achieve its mission.

So where are brands described as cult brands headed? It will be interesting to re-visit history and conclude that groups that differentiate themselves through their culture will be around to tell us their success stories. Only time will tell…just noticed a friend who has a cropped look, wears jeams and leather jackets to fit into a CULT.. Am I glad I can keep my face, my 10 year old wardrobe and keep doing what I enjoy. Celebrating a culture!



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