Looking Back at the “Cult-like Cultures” Principle

The phrase "cult-like cultures" makes me slightly cringe. 

I’ve been re-reading the influential book “Built to Last,” by management guru Jim Collins. Even though the book was published in 1994, many of its principles still ring true today. The authors studied the successful habits of visionary companies, and then tried to extract what made them visionary, as compared to average companies.

One principle that made visionary companies different, according to the authors, was that they had "cultlike cultures." In other words, these companies were "great places to work only for those who buy in to the core ideology; those who don't fit the ideology are ejected like a virus (preserves the core)."

If "Built to Last" were written today, I imagine this would have been phrased differently for two reasons. First, even though many companies, especially tech and finance companies, come across as cult-like (as anyone watching the TV show Silicon Valley knows), the phrase "cult-like" is no longer a positive, aspirational phrase. It reminds me of Dave Eggers book "The Circle," in which a recent grad joins a tech company, and then the company's increasing influence on her life becomes consequential.

Second, today’s companies want to build a strong culture, of course, but they also don’t want to rule out potential hires who aren’t a “perfect” fit. If you only hire people who fit into an existing mold, you’ll end up with a lack of diversity. (For more on this, see “Why You Should Be Hiring for ‘Culture Add,’ Not Culture Fit”). At IDEO, we try to hire for culture add, not culture fit. Instead, we hire based on our values.

Still, the many of the “cultlike culture” principles that Collins laid out in Built to Last are relevant, even if you’re not trying to "eject those who don’t preserve the core."

Here they are:

  • Orientation and ongoing training programs that have ideological as well as practical content, teaching such things as values, norms, history, and tradition
  • Internal "universities" and training centers
  • On-the-job socialization by peers and immediate supervisors
  • Rigorous up-through-the-ranks policies – hiring young, promoting from within, shaping mindsets from a young age
  • Exposure to a pervasive mythology of "heroic deeds" and corporate exemplars
  • Unique language and terminology that reinforce a frame of reference and a sense of belonging to a special, elite group
  • Corporate songs, cheers, affirmations, or pledges that reinforce psychological commitment
  • Tight screening processes, during hiring or the first few years
  • Incentive and advancement criteria explicitly linked to fit with the corporate ideology. Financial "buy-in" mechanisms
  • Awards, contests, and public recognition for those displaying effort consistent with the ideology.
  • Tolerance for honest mistakes that do not breach the company’s ideology. Severe penalties or termination for breaching the ideology
  • Celebrations that reinforce successes, belongingness, specialness
  • Plant and office layout that reinforces norms and ideals
  • Constant verbal and written emphasis on corporate values, heritage, and the sense of being part of something special

Which of these does your organization have? Which of these are still aspirational?