Culture

CULTURE OR CULT?

My last blog compared the benefits of a tight culture to the risks and costs of building a dysfunctional cult. Let’s continue our discussion.

In this blog, we will look at the difference between culture and cult; list some of the signs or indicators of each (how we can tell them apart), and list some of the risks and costs of arrogance and dogmatism in organizational culture.

Culture, language, and brand:

If you are running an organization, you have to be very concerned about how others see you. Your reputation and brand have to be strategic assets, not liabilities. You are competing for talent, customers, capital, and suppliers, and therefore have to be attractive to the world, even if you choose to do this in a wildly eccentric way. Your culture is highly visible to the outside world and has a direct impact on your reputation and brand.

How do outsiders experience strong, unique cultures?

Language is a key outward expression of culture. Unique cultures tend to have unique languages. Any group that has their own private, insider language is a bit cultish. But is it a cult (in the bad sense)? Not necessarily.

A distinctive (cultish) language can be the authentic expression of unique shared experiences and aspirations. It can express new ways of seeing, interpreting, and interacting with the world.

When outsiders complain that a unique language seems cultish, insiders often respond: “We see the world differently. We use our own unique language to capture our unique experience, and do new things in new ways. If you haven’t had the same experiences as us, then it will be difficult for you to understand the nuances in our language and the experiences they express.”

Outsiders are sometimes attracted to a unique culture. They sometimes see it as progressive and cool, and sometimes want to join the club to experience the exclusive, insider feel and camaraderie: “I want to be part of this; how do I join?”

Sometimes, however, outsiders feel excluded, judged, and rejected by the insiders, and sometimes disoriented by the strangeness of the culture. When people feel excluded, a group’s unique language is experienced as arbitrary jargon—like a series of inside jokes which seem superfluous, inaccessible, or threatening.

Why is this?

The way you talk and do things seems normal and natural to you. When people speak and do things differently from you, it seems unnatural. We experience our own worldview and language practices as normal, natural, and logical. We therefore tend to judge an unfamiliar (idiosyncratic) language harshly as artificial, pretentious, eccentric, inauthentic, and unnecessary: “Why don’t they just talk normal, and use the regular words?”

People inside a unique culture often see the outside world as outdated, naïve, or not yet enlightened—at least according to their hard won lessons and insights. And there can be truth in this. People within a tight culture, however, can be harshly judgmental and dismissive toward outsiders: “They just don’t get it. Why are they resisting? They are so in denial. They just haven’t seen what we have seen.”

The problem goes deep.

The issue here goes way beyond listening skills and transparent communication. It is about truth and reality. Our habits become reality. The familiar becomes the truth. Each truth opens a door, to be sure, but it also closes other doors. The blinders that help us focus also become prisons of the mind and heart. Your reality. My reality. A new reality. None of them will ever be fully complete, solid, static, or final. Truth is dynamic, contextual, historical (cultural), socially constructed, performative (created in how we live it, do it, perform it), and complex—beyond any complete comprehension and mastery.

What counts most is where we meet—and the reality we create there—to change the world.

Let’s return to the question of tight cultures: How do you know if you have gone too far; if your culture is working or holding you back; attractive or repulsive; exclusive in the good way or the bad way?

More signs & costs of cultish dysfunction:

The first set of signs or metrics of a tight culture can be found in my last blog (“Benefits” and “Costs”). Here are a few other signs and costs of building a dysfunctional cult instead of a strategic culture. We will focus here on two crippling cultish dysfunctions: dogmatism and arrogance.

Tight cultures can produce a sense of superiority, and the false dream of completeness, finality, absolute control & mastery. These in turn often lead to dogmatism and arrogance which impede openness, honest reflection, learning, and progress. They become clunky machines instead of organic / living systems.

Some of the following examples may seem extreme, but it blows my mind how common they are in business—and in supposedly enlightened people of all stripes.

Dogmatic:

  • Stop looking for ways to improve; don’t question the status quo or sacred cows
  • Don’t show sufficient respect for competitors (not paranoid enough)
  • Ignore or reject negative feedback as naïve or unenlightened
  • Our way is the best way / the only way — “our way or the highway”
  • Only our language (our jargon) works and truly reflects reality
  • If you use different jargon, “you clearly don’t get it” or are “inauthentic”
  • If you use different jargon, you certainly don’t belong here / can’t help us

Arrogant:

  • No one can do it better / there is no other way
  • No one is more authentic or enlightened than us / we are fully enlightened
  • No other kind of enlightenment is possible or valuable (our path is the only path)
  • There is nothing to learn from others (new employees, suppliers, outsiders…)
  • They have to “get us” before we will even talk to them
  • No tolerance for questioning the status quo (outside a narrow band of accepted dialogue)
  • Resistance to learning anything outside of one’s rituals, routines, comfort zone
  • Happy to share your culture with new employees (orientation & on-boarding) but would never ask new members about the wisdom and gifts they bring

I hope everyone sees the resemblance to religious fundamentalism, fascism, and totalitarianism, and their henchmen, centralized government, big brother, and command & control leadership. And I assume most rational people reject this dogmatism and arrogance as dangerous and narrow-minded. We certainly know from experience how limiting and risky they can be in business.

My next blog (#3 in this series) will discuss authenticity.

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