Putting the Cult Back into Culture

supportive cultures facilitate personal freedom and foster positive growth.

If someone told you your company is a cult, how would you take it?

Instead of getting offended, you may want to feel a sense of pride. It all depends on how you look at cults and the role they play in creating your corporate culture.

Defining Cult and Culture

“Cult” and “culture” are both derived from the Latin cultus, which means inhabited, cultivated, or worshiped. Cultus generally refers to the social forms, customs, beliefs, and traits of a racial, religious, or social group.

Cult, in itself, doesn’t denote something negative. A cult is a group with beliefs and practices that deviate from the norm.

If these practices include surrendering your personal freedom and financial future to a charismatic leader, then we can correctly label that cult destructive.

If, however, group practices “create fun and a little weirdness” and “pursue growth and learning”—two of Zappos’ Core Value—then we have a cult of a higher order.

A corporate environment that encourages creating fun and weirdness is certainly out of the norm and so it qualifies for the definition of a cult. But it’s a cult that attracts positive, creative, intelligent people who want their work life to provide more than just a paycheck.

The Structure of Destructive CUlts

To better understand how to cultivate a supportive corporate culture, let’s first examine the structure of destructive cults.

Steven Hassan, an internationally recognized expert on cult mind control, created the BITE Model (Behavior, Information, Thought, Emotion) to decipher how destructive cults operate:

  • Behavior Control: Destructive cults regulate their members’ physical reality including what they wear, what they eat and drink, how much sleep they get, and how much free time they have. Members spend a great deal of time in group indoctrination and rituals. Subjected to rigid rules and regulations, they are taught to be obedient. Individualism is discouraged; group think is encouraged.
  • Information Control: In destructive cults, the leader decides who needs to know what. Information is deliberately withheld. Access to outside information is discouraged. Spying on each other is encouraged to monitor and control members.
  • Thought Control: Members of destructive cults are expected to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth. A clear divide between good and evil, black and white, us versus them is established. Alternative belief systems are labeled as illegitimate and not useful. Any critical questions about the leader, doctrine, or policy are prohibited.
  • Emotional Control: Prevailing feelings of unworthiness, guilt, and fear dominate the organization. Members are made to feel that problems are their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s. Individuals are indoctrinated into a fear of leaving the group or questioning the leader. If members leave the group, they are shunned. Members never see a legitimate reason to leave.1

There you have it. The secret formula for controlling and manipulating your people into doing your will.

The unfortunate truth is that the majority of corporations unconsciously fall into these destructive patterns of behavior, to varying degrees. And when they do, people suffer.

Establishing a Thriving Corporate Culture

Now that we’ve explored the shadow side of cults, let’s turn our attention to the uplifting side of culture. To do that, we’ll turn Hassan’s BITE Model on its head:

  • Behavior Freedom: Without conscious intention, human behavior often becomes unruly and unorganized. Thriving organizations establish set patterns of behavior. These behaviors, however, don’t limit individuals. Instead, they challenge individuals (including the CEO) to elevate their game through core values.
  • Information Freedom: Information isn’t controlled in thriving organizations. Transparency facilitates open communication, enhanced collaboration, and more effective decisions.
  • Thought Freedom: Every culture has its own vernacular. In destructive cults, the language creates a clear dividing line between good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable. In thriving cultures, the language and prevailing beliefs allow for multiple perspectives. They encourage spirited dialogue without holding any belief as sacred and absolute. This enables these organizations to adapt to change quickly and to continuously innovate ahead of their competitors.
  • Emotional Freedom: Emotions like guilt and fear work great if you want to control people, but they come at the expense of killing creativity, productivity, and performance. An environment of psychological safety best promotes creativity and higher performance. Thriving corporate cultures foster fun, positive workplaces that stimulate connection, collaboration, and the free exchange of ideas.

Promoting Freedom Within Your Organization

While destructive cults seek to control, manipulate, and limit their people, supportive cults or cultures do the opposite: they facilitate personal freedom that fosters positive growth. This is one of the secrets to successful Cult Brands.

As a leader of your organization, you have a great responsibility. Many of your employees are, quite frankly, projecting their own power onto you.

Knowing this, you have two choices: you can exploit it for your own ego gain (control and power over others) or you can use this knowledge to support the growth and development of your people, improving your organization in the process.

Leaders who consciously cultivate a culture that promotes open-mindedness, honesty, trust, optimism, and self-management will unquestionably have an intangible competitive advantage in the years to come.


  1. Steven Hassan, Combating Cult Mind Control, 1988.
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