13 steps to developing a cult-like company culture

Not many people know where the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” originates from. On November 18, 1978 Jim Jones, the founder and leader of the People’s Temple cult, convinced his followers that the end of the world was upon them and 909 men, women and children committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide mixed with Kool Aid. Over the years there have been other evil cults like the Branch Davidians, The Manson Family, Twelve Tribes and Heaven’s Gate that have made the news for all the wrong reasons, and a lot of people are understandably uncomfortable with the word cult.

It’s pretty much impossible for a business to become a full-blown cult.

To create a proper cult — the evil, exploitative type that uses manipulative brainwashing techniques to the detriment of their members — the cult leader needs to be able to restrict or eliminate the cult member’s capability for independent thought. Hence the term brainwash. To deal with the increasingly volatile and uncertain business environment, leaders need their people to be able to think independently and come up with their own ideas and solutions to problems. Eliminating a team member’s capability for independent thought would be counterproductive and go a long way to destroying the company. The other thing about cults is that they are, for the most part “selling” self-improvement and salvation, which are not products or services that can be measured and questioned.

A company can however, develop a cult-like commitment from its employees, and the very best companies do. As Jim Collins found in his research for Built to Last “Architects of visionary companies don’t just trust in good intentions or values statements; they build cult-like cultures around their core ideologies. One of the steps to creating a cult-like environment is to develop your own language around what you do and Walt Disney created an internal language to reinforce his company’s ideology. Disneyland employees are “cast members.” Customers are “guests.” Jobs are “parts” in a “performance.” Disney required — as the company still does to this day — that all new employees go through a “Disney Traditions” orientation course, in which they learn the company’s business is to make people happy.”

There are other extremely successful companies that have managed to build a cult-like following from their employees and customers; companies like Apple, Tesla, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom and Harley Davidson spring to mind. If you look below the surface you will find most of the techniques that hard core cults use, in operation in these businesses.

The 13 steps you need to take to build a cult-like company culture are:

1. Surface and define the company’s core values and combine them with one or more of the following: mission/vision/principles/purpose

2. Deliberately embed the culture into the company — into policies, processes, procedure as well as across all functions

3. Agree the behaviours that you and your team expect from one another

4. Develop a purpose beyond the commercial rationale of the company

5. Create myths, stories, legends, using symbols and habits to reinforce the company culture

6. Create an environment that celebrates achievement, results and living the culture

7. Create a sense of camaraderie, community and most importantly belonging,

8. Remove inhibitions and allow your people to express, and be, themselves

9. Build a unique group identity and create a sense of exclusivity within your team

10. Position your people and the company as different

11. Develop an internal company-specific language for what you do

12. Codify mutual dependence, mutual responsibility and create a shared sense of obligation

13. Create an environment where your people can work efficiently, self-actualize, make a difference and fulfil their potential

If you succeed in building a cult-like culture similar to the way that Apple, Tesla, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom and Harley Davidson have, you will experience loyalty, dedication and commitment from your employees (and customer’s) that is way beyond the norm.

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