Last year, Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins successfully defended itself against a discrimination lawsuit filed by former partner Ellen Pao, by embracing a defense rooted in “culture fit.”
It’s open to discussion what “organizational fit” or “organizational culture” mean, let alone how we can measure them. What we do know is that organizational culture is regarded a prize asset—a set of values and norms that people embrace and adopt. Cultural norms and values define certain industries as well. Risk aversion is the hallmark of an insurance firm, for instance, while risk-taking and creativity abound in marketing and other creative industries. To succeed, an individual’s personality needs to fit in some way with what is required in that organization and industry.
But cultures have unanticipated consequences, and Silicon Valley, with its well-publicized diversity problem is seeing some of them now. The question is: When does organizational culture cross the line and become, for lack of a better word, a cult?
Appeals to organizational fit and culture can be thinly-veiled excuses for preferentialism, cronyism, and exclusion. Country clubs and private universities long defended their discriminatory practices by admitting only those people who fit the culture. Where do we draw the line between preferring people who think like us, look like us, and share our beliefs and blatant discriminatory and preferential practice?
What’s difficult about solving this issue is that culture-creating is inevitable. Every group creates a culture. This is normal human behavior. We seek out those similar to us; create in-groups; and value certain behaviors, attitudes, and ways of being which in turn shape how people relate, work, and communicate. Fitting in and being part of the culture feels good.
For these reasons, the thin line between culture and cult is indeed very thin. If every culture has a little bit of cult in it, we need to recognize when we are at risk of crossing that line from culture to cult, from camaraderie to exclusivity. So, how do we know when we’re at risk?
Are You at Risk?
Here are some signs and symptoms when your group, team, or organization is at risk for going over the line from culture to cult-like:
What Kind of Conflict is Present?
A creative culture has an atmosphere of creative engagement, which has to include some element of conflict. But creative conflict is not personal; it’s the robust clash and clang of ideas butting up against each other. It can be intense, but often results in something innovative and exciting, and it rarely becomes personal. Open cultures handle conflict well, because they understand that this is how groups of people learn and develop.
Cultish cultures, on the other hand, see conflict as a threat to cohesion and conformity. They either repress it, which then comes out in toxic ways (such as gossip), or they target the person who brings up conflict as having problems, a difficult personality, or just doesn’t “get it.”
One Method of Engagement Dominates the Group’s Style
Our in-group nature means we feel safer when we’re with people like ourselves. And this doesn’t just mean demographic similarity; it often manifests as conformity of thinking styles, communication styles, and ways of processing information. All groups tend to have a dominant style: extraverted, analytical, methodical, competitive, etc. But cultish groups do this to an extreme. It’s almost impossible for any other style to make inroads; in fact, other styles are often ridiculed, or seen as inferior. An analytical group will roll its eyes if someone tries to focus on process, whereas a relational, process focused group will become cynical if someone attempts to structure things too tightly.
Those Who Join Cannot Leave
As the old joke goes, you don’t retire from the mafia—at least not alive. This, of course, is a hyperbolic example, but cultish groups are often designated by their inability to let people leave. They take leaving as an affront, and often find a way instead to kick someone out or discredit them if they left on their own accord. Secure and open groups continue to court ex-members, invite them back, speak positively about them, and feel proud of what they go on to do. Cultish groups are threatened, and take someone’s leaving as a criticism, or as a personal betrayal.
There’s No Feedback, Just Whistleblowing
Cultish groups don’t seek out feedback, nor do they tolerate criticism from within or from out. It’s very difficult to give the group or organization feedback without it being received as hostile, inaccurate, or an attempt to undermine the group. When people do try to give feedback, the culture retaliates against or criticizes the feedback giver’s perceptions—and even personality —in an attempt to “shoot the messenger.” Over time, the feedback giver inevitably becomes discouraged and gives up.
By contrast, healthy and open groups tolerate and make a place for feedback and criticism. Individuals don’t like to be criticized, and neither do groups, but it’s part and parcel of a healthy organism.
Though many have denounced its outcome as a blow against workplace equality, the Ellen Pao case has had at least one positive (and hopefully lasting) effect: it has kindled a conversation about the very real impact of organizational culture. If we’re able to see culture for what it is—a product of human choice, and not a foregone conclusion—we can become aware of our in-group natures, and build organizations that embody the voices and aspirations of all of us.