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How to Put the "Cult" in Your Culture


Many businesses talk about culture, or they aspire to create or achieve a particular culture.  What does this mean anyway? Don't all organizations already have a culture?  It may not be the culture they desire, but something is already present as an individual personality.  There is no such thing as an absent company culture.  What is triggering this conversation inside so many businesses?  I believe the trigger is a desire to change at the organizational level.  Or, it could be a new book (or speech) on the topic that triggers a CEO to question her company's culture.  This need is rooted in a desire to understand current organizational reality to change for the better.

Indeed says corporate culture is an organization's values, ethics, vision, behaviors, and work environment. It makes each company unique, impacting everything from public image to employee engagement and retention. If employees share a company's ethics, vision, and other cultural elements, it can positively affect a company's bottom line. Companies with exemplary corporate culture often have high workplace morale with a highly engaged, productive staff.

Like personality, you already have a culture.  Changing your culture requires an understanding of your current culture.  My friend David Friedman's book "Culture by Design" is a testament to being intentional about your culture - culture by design, not chance.  Corporate enlightenment occurs when you know yourself organizationally.

Technically, the word culture comes from cultivating.  More specifically, from Latin cultura "a cultivating, agriculture," figuratively "care, culture, an honoring," from past participle stem of colere "to tend, guard; to till, cultivate."  Is this too much information?

We are going to examine the word differently.  Cultures are usually noticeable when uncommon. Texas A&M University and the fighting Texas Aggies, the Marine Corps, and Apple are cult-like organizations.  You know these organizations when you encounter them.

Guess what?  The word cult, according to Merriam-Webster, shares an origin with culture and cultivate, comes from the Latin cultus, a noun with meanings ranging from "tilling, cultivation" to "training or education" to "adoration." In English, a cult has evolved several meanings following a fairly logical path. The earliest known uses of the word, recorded in the 17th century, broadly denoted "worship."

The best definition of a cult is the object of such devotion, usually a group of people characterized by such passion.  Now, we are getting to something useful.  A common denominator for all cults is devotion.  People are devoted to something.  Or, an organization becomes dedicated to something.

So, defining your culture may be as simple as determining what you are devoted to as a group of people.  Identify those devotions, and you will better understand your culture.  What if you don't know what you are devoted to as a business?  Great question; I am glad you asked.  This likely means you have a culture by chance.  You are a typical organization with little devotion from your people. Ouch!

Years ago, I asked a humorous question in a speech.  How many of your employees have your company logo tattooed on their bodies? That's devotion.  As it turns out, the problem is a serious question to ponder considering the love of body ink these days.  I recently gave a speech in North Louisiana to a large audience, and a lady jumped from her chair and yelled, "I do"!  I walked off the stage (microphone in hand) to see this for myself.  True story!

How cool is your company?  As it turns out, your level of coolness is a mirror for devotion.  People want to belong to something because belonging has always helped humans survive.  Belonging is deeply rooted in our DNA.  Great cultures tap into that sense of belonging by exuding a different version of normal.  Think of all the cult-like organizations you know.  There is always something weirdly different about them, and they dare to call them traditions.  They are traditionally weird in a unique way.  Their response is, you wouldn't understand. Collective weirdness is an indication of healthy organizational culture. 

In a culture audit, I help organizations identify and define their existing and potential uniqueness.  This work is done by closely examining group behaviors for deviations from existing norms.  These deviations (expanded) are clues for your organization's cultural potential.  David Friedman calls these fundamentals.  In other words, your culture defines your collective behaviors.   Friedman postulates that identifying your collective fundamentals (I call these behaviors) and doing them is a powerful method to design your culture intentionally.  He is on to something.

Another way to put the cult in culture is to be uncompromising about things in your organization.  Compromising on your behaviors and traditions erodes your culture.  Every time you compromise, you lose a little of your culture, and it becomes easier to compromise again and again.  Companies with strong cultures are quirky and strange.  That is a good thing.

It requires a strong leadership team to be different on purpose.  I coined the term "anti-ordinary" in my 2009 book, Leadership Among Idiots.  If you cannot name five weird things about your organization, you have a culture by chance.  I work with a wonderful organization that is relentless when it comes to housekeeping.  The office restroom has a sign reminding you to wipe out the sink after washing your hands.  This weird sign is a constant reminder that housekeeping is non-negotiable.

Consequently, they are a highly demanding organization to work for and have high expectations for all team members.  By the way, their perseverance produces results and profitability.  Everyone will not be successful in this organization (people get fired), and that is also intentional because if just anyone can belong, it is no longer cult-like.

Following are some questions as you process this information.  What makes your organization a little strange by comparison with others?  What are you unwilling to compromise about, and what traditions have you formed in your business?  What are some peculiar rituals in your organization?  How many people have your company logo as a tattoo?