I’ve spent three years working in the corporate mental health arena, and I can firmly say that my work and personal life have delved into the deep, dark and traumatic spaces of cults, held together in the name of ‘business.’
Let’s start by addressing the key characteristics of a cult: 1. A group of people, controlled and devoted to one or two leaders. 2. Should anyone speak up about wrongdoing in said cult, they will be ostracised and mentally destroyed. 3. Leadership dictates how persons involved in the cult should think, behave and even feel. 4. There’s a ‘family’ style attitude. Work place cults often refer to themselves as ‘family’, mainly because family members are expected to show unwavering loyalty to their leaders, going above and beyond all normal realms of an employer and employee relationship. Boundaries are almost non existent, in every sense.
5. The group leader or leaders think they are above all authority. Their thoughts, beliefs and feelings are the only opinions that matter. Should anyone try to disciple them, or even have a conversation about their wrongdoing, they will be categorically ignored. The cult leader is the only opinion that matters.
6. Gaslighting, guilt and manipulation are tools used to control the workforce.
7. Employees are expected to go above and beyond the call of duty. Devoting more time and effort to the business than the leaders themselves. Often unpaid or below minimum wage.
Cult leaders are often charismatic and charming. You may be fooled into believing they are your best friend, there to support you or champion the underdog. A cult leader has one motivation for everything they say and do, to control the narrative.
A red flag in spotting a potential cult leader is with their own voicing of concern about control. Familiar stories may begin to ring true, they’ve fallen out with their family repeatedly, because they feel controlled, every ex partner they have had has been ‘abusive’, but no one ever actually speaks to the ex’s, meaning the leader goes unchallenged, they have no friends left, because they all disagreed with them at some point or another and cast aside, maybe even the government is trying to control their every move.
You know how the saying goes, when someone protests too much? Eventually, if you pay close enough attention, the red flags will start to send up flares.
One of the sad truths about workplace cults is how they often recruit their employees to act out their master plan. Whilst the cult leader sits behind a desk, conducting the orchestra from afar, the employees are left to do the dirty work.
Everyone is their best friend or family member… until they show resistance. The consequences often don’t bare thinking about if you go against the leader. Refuse to act on their poor or illegal patterns of behaviour, refuse to make the workplace your priority or even just expressing a will to leave the workplace - you may soon find yourself, enemy number one.
When someone has gone against the cult, other staff may be tasked with firing the individual. Told to make up or exaggerate poor performance, quite simply, to do whatever it takes to punish anyone for going against their leader…. And the employees do it, because they are afraid of becoming the next victim.
As for those employees who don’t go quietly, grave consequences await them. Careers, reputations and livelihoods will be destroyed. The leader will stop at nothing to make sure they feel the repercussions of speaking out or leaving. Smear campaigns can be rife, but the leader will sit back and play the victim.
How do we spot a cult early? How do we save ourselves? Look out for the warning signs!
Speak to past employees, find out the turnover of staff, do your research. Go beneath the facade they paint! More importantly, get to know the leader of the organisation you may end up working for.
Do they display signs of a narcissistic personality? Most cult leaders are exceptionally high on the narcissism scale!
Are they excessively confident and display grandeur or superiority in themselves that seems unwarranted? Some narcissistic leaders think they are here for a ‘higher purpose’, almost god like!
Do they seem entirely self-absorbed and out of touch with reality? Are they outlandish and often leave people ‘rolling their eyes?’.
Do they respect or consider their employees, or do they parade their wealth around without thought nor care for their staff on minimum wage? Are they completely tone deaf and have no idea how to ‘read the room’?
Do they inflate their wealth?! Does the life they lead live up to the picture they paint, or is it all a grand facade to make people believe they are more important than they are? Are they obsessively materialistic?
Do they genuinely seem to have empathy for people or does their empathy feel insincere?
Do they portray an image that it is a privilege to speak to them? Being so focused on their own self importance they have no feeling for anyone, other than them self.
A narcissistic leader finds it impossible to take criticism, they take EVERYTHING personally and feel like they are being attacked.
They may say they listen to their people, but they listen inauthentically. They simply want to portray they listen, so they can appear understanding, gaining favour and support from employees. However; they are usually only listening to find the weak areas of an employee and will ultimately use what they have learnt against them.
They are inconsistent. In most aspects of working life, because it’s hard to keep the mask on all of the time.
The first step in avoiding a workplace cult is to have awareness.
This article is an uncomfortable and ugly side of employment, but it happens all around us. Having been witness to many people that have required extensive trauma treatment after leaving workplace cults, I can honestly say, it’s our duty as humans to speak up about these atrocities… and if you’re a workplace leader, reading this, elements are perhaps resonating - it’s never too late to take responsibility and find a new path.