Repeat after me “this is not a cult”. 

(Well deserved attribution of that joke to Matt Church which always gives me a good chuckle.) 

Few people would argue with the fact that building a healthy culture sits high on a team or organisational leader’s priorities. It’s what SCU professor David Caldwell describes as the ‘invisible glue holding organisations together’. When the culture is healthy, organisations attract and retain high caliber talent, foster an engaged workforce and ultimately reap the benefits in the results produced. On the flip side, when a culture lacks health, the consequences are felt throughout the organisation and shows up in the bottom line. Dr Sam Chand once likened toxic culture to ‘carbon monoxide’ in that it is both invisible and deadly. 

I think it’s safe to say that we agree on this…culture matters. But at what point does the desire to create a strong, healthy culture cross the line into unhealthy cult like behaviours?

It’s fascinating that the word cult shows up in culture because in a sense both are about creating a ‘way’ of doing things. Without getting too abstract, let’s take a look at just four distinctions between culture building and cult building and how it can help us lead better.

1.    Culture is Iterative Not Sacred

We can change it if it doesn’t serve us. 

A culture serves the purpose and direction of the organisation not the other way around. In a cult, the philosophy or doctrine is held up as sacred. Any attempt to adapt or change it is heretical. Healthy cultures, however, are always iterating and evolving when they are no longer helpful. ‘That’s just the way we’ve always done things’ or ‘that’s just how we do things’ is not a valid justification for sustaining a culture that no longer serves the organisation or team.

2.    Culture is Resilient Not Fragile

We can handle robust scrutiny of our culture. 

In a cult, unquestioned devotion is rewarded, and scrutiny is labelled as blasphemy. When building a healthy culture, leaders welcome questions and robust discussion knowing that the culture can stand up to it. They reward thinking and value informed commitment from their people. Great leaders know that healthy discussion and dialogue are critical to building a resilient culture.

3.    Culture is Oneness Not Sameness

We are seeking unity not uniformity. 

Building a healthy culture means placing value on diversity (in all its forms) not trying to eradicate it. Healthy culture is about finding unity in diversity. We can think, feel and act different whilst sharing a common purpose, direction and vision. It’s possible for me to value your perspective even when I don’t share your preference. Cults focus on replicating sameness, but culture is about fostering oneness. 

4.    Culture is Shared Not Forced

We want choice not control. 

A culture should be aspirational not judgemental. In a cult, members are told what to value. They seek to control. When they do not act appropriately, they are shamed. A healthy culture creates a shared value and inspires people to be part of the journey. We want people to choose. When they miss the mark, they are supported and reminded of the shared value and their potential. Healthy culture is desired by people not enforced on them.

Culture has often been described as the ‘way WE do things’. It is collaborative and embraced. Cults are often marked by leaders telling people the ‘way YOU will do things’. It is dictated and enforced. 

Both are about creating a ‘way’  but I know which one I would prefer.