Organizational culture can be a huge asset or a crippling liability. In Built to Last, Collins and Porras make a powerful argument for creating “cult-like cultures.” (See also Culture and Bottom Line.)

But how tight should your organizational culture be? 

How “cult-like” can it get before it becomes dysfunctional? What are the signs or indicators of going too far? How can we reap the benefits of a strong, unique culture while minimizing the risks and costs of overdoing it, i.e., of creating a dysfunctional cult?

It is clearly valuable to have a culture that is unique, unified, integrated, whole, aligned, and authentic. Nevertheless, those very strengths can push a culture toward becoming too singular, simple, flat, narrow, close-minded, black & white, controlling/repressive, and inward looking.

Let’s contrast some of the potential benefits of a cult-like culture to the costs of creating a dysfunctional cult.

Benefits of a tight culture:

Organizations with tight cultures can enjoy these advantages:

  • More focused: a laser like focus can produce great results
  • Better alignment around aspirations, goals, actions, attitudes, values…
  • Ability to execute quickly and effectively (working as a tight unit)
  • Common language and better communication and teamwork
  • Trust and loyalty: better camaraderie, relationships, and employee retention
  • More efficient and effective new employee orientation and on-boarding
  • Highly inclusive of insiders: insiders are trusted
  • Exclusive (in a good way): “this place is special—it’s not for everyone/anyone”

Costs of going too far:

Organizational cultures that are too tight (too cultish) can suffer from these risks, costs, and negative consequences:

  • Close-minded, navel-gazing, self-absorbed, group think
  • Tyranny of the majority or of the true insiders (the cult leaders)
  • Resistant to new talent, new ideas, alternative perspectives
  • Difficulty absorbing newcomers
  • Little tolerance for the unconventional, avant-garde, outliers, mavericks, outsiders
  • Strict adherence to the status quo: don’t tolerate questioning the status quo (except within a narrow band of officially accepted dialogue)
  • Closed to feedback: negative feedback is seen as uninformed (“they don’t get it”)
  • Blind to the outside world: missing changes, trends, and opportunities
  • Rigid, inflexible, not adaptive—set in its ways and dogmatic about them
  • Exclusive (in a bad way): closed, snobby, arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic…


The benefits of a tight culture are clearly very high, as are the costs of overdoing it.

My next blog will continue this discussion:

  1. Culture or cult?
  2. Signs and costs of an arrogant and dogmatic culture


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