You can’t spell Culture without Cult

In HR we love to talk about culture. When things are going well, we cite the organization’s culture. On the flip side, when things are not going so great, we are pretty quick to blame the organization’s culture. 

Churning out great products or services? You must have a culture that values innovation.

Turnover too high? It’s difficult finding a cultural fit. 

But what is culture, really? And how do you go about changing it?  

It isn’t easy because the organization’s culture starts with leadership. This is because the top brass hires people. Then those people hire people, and those people hire people, and so on. Each person carries a little bit of DNA from the top. Sure people leave, even the top brass “goes on to pursue other opportunities,” but unless the entire organization were to somehow do a complete 100% turnover of personnel overnight, the DNA will stick around.

Now, here’s the rub.

If the top brass’ corporate culture DNA is trickling through the rest of the organization, they had better be careful or their bad genes may work their way into the mix as well. Maybe they have a gene for infighting. Or a gene for valuing “yes-men” and “yes-women.” Maybe they have the “I am the CBW (Chief Bottle Washer), and therefore am to be revered gene.” All of these things lead to like-minded individuals, who perpetuate into a culture, much the same way as a cult does.

What happens when someone joins a cult, but decides it isn’t for them? They leave (or at least they try to), and then they star in Lifetime Original specials. This really isn’t that different from corporate America (with the possible exception of Uber and a few other Silicon Valley firms, no one is making late-night television based off their experience).

Now to be fair, I think that cults have gotten a bad rap. I mean sure, there is that whole mass-suicide thing, but let’s face it – the people who are running them have to have some leadership qualities, otherwise no one would join them.

So, the bottom line here is this. If you want to make a change to your organization’s culture, you need to start with the top leadership. If you are the top leadership, look at who you are hiring and the kinds of people you are surrounding yourself with. Do these people exhibit the behaviors you want? If not, what makes you think the people they hire and surround themselves with will be any different? 

If you are not the top brass (or in a position to influence the top brass), all hope isn’t lost. Look for the nearest exit, or grab your red solo cup and have some Kool-Aid.

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