What this research on cults can tell you about your job

The word “cult” might be thrown around a little too flippantly these days to describe wacky company culture. But what if you’re starting to get the feeling that your boss is a little more Charles Manson than Richard Branson?

Researchers at California State University have created the “bounded choice model” to speak about topics such as cults or cult leaders. But what if your workplace has elements that also subscribe to this psychosociological theory? When do you know if your job is beginning to become “cultish”?

What is “bounded choice”?

The model of “bounded choice” is exactly what defines a cult – a socio-psychological theory that “human agency (and therefore, free will) is constrained by the duality of structure” in a way that’s harmful to the individual and their sense of decision-making.

Choices tend to be made that are better for the collective than the individual, and the organization always comes first – other than the leader, who crafts where the organization goes, and what it stands for. Choices also are “constrained by both external and internalized sanctions, both real and imagined,” and as a consequence, “are in alignment with the cult’s reality” to the participants, though they “might look crazy or irrational to the outsider.”

Those who adhere to the strict framework of structural rigidity are known as “true believers,” and the organization itself, one that facilitates conformity no matter what the cost, is known as a “self-sealing system.” There are four hallmarks of a self-sealing system: charismatic authority, the transcendent belief system, the system of control, and the system of influence.

Charismatic authority

There’s no Heaven’s Gate without Marshall Applewhite, no Peoples Temple without Jim Jones, and no Amazon without Jeff Bezos – every group needs a charismatic authority to reassure that their followers are entranced into the group’s lifestyle.

Described as the “emotional bond between leader and followers,” this sense of a charismatic or mysterious pull gives the leader’s ideals, goals, and actions legitimacy, “while at the same time justifying and reinforcing followers’ responses to the leader.” The leader doesn’t necessarily have to have the credentials or experience to lead, just the charisma to make others believe that he does.

While your business might have a quirky boss or a passionate CEO, it’s important that the guiding light of your company doesn’t slip into complete narcissistic grandiosity. Often, charismatic authority can be cloaked in altruism, as a leader will be seen giving up a “normal” life for a higher purpose or separating from friends and family to further their mission.

But the malevolent nature of their actions beneath the surface are much more sadistic – these leaders will instruct you to do things that might harm you or alter your lifestyle in a negative way. In the case of cult leaders like Shoko Asahara of Aum Shinrikyo, this meant that followers had to restrict their diets and receive corporal punishment for disobedience. But with a cultish CEO, this could translate to a culture that pressures you to work through lunch, or public shaming for simple mistakes.

Transcendent belief system

A transcendent belief system is like the blueprint to the charismatic authority’s construction foreman – without it, the leader has no substance, no product, and no tools, and their charisma means nothing. This belief system is the group’s ideology, one that “keeps them behaving according to the group’s rules and norms.” This is done by the leader offering not only “a total explanation of past, present, and future, including a path to salvation,” but a complete path of “personal transformation” for members to use in order to eventually be saved.

One of the most important things about a transcendent belief system is that it posits “grand solutions by means of authoritative concepts and persuasive imagery,” and once again, not just by altruistic means. Past research has described this belief system as perpetuating “utopian” ideals through “radical change,” simplifying the difficulties of human life by watering down big ideas into generic keywords, like “peace” and “love.”

But this is different from just your standard company culture – transcendent belief systems create ideologies to ensnare their true believers rather than empower them, and oftentimes, the road to enlightenment is paved with pain and suffering.

In a more banal way, this can come in the form of a commercial that presents a horrifying potential future if you don’t buy this product, or vote for this candidate.

In a more sinister way, you could find yourself in a company that convinces you they’re going to save the world, and turn it into a utopia – and that invasive, unethical data collection or unfair work practices are just a means to an end.

Systems of control

While charismatic authority is the foreman, and a transcendent system of beliefs is the blueprint, systems of control are the daily schedules for the workers, so that they’re efficiently and practically able to achieve their goals. It’s described in the literature as “the network of acknowledged, or visible, regulatory mechanisms that guide the operation of the group, such as the “overt rules, regulations, and procedures that guide and control members’ behavior.” The beliefs are more overarching and thematic, while the systems of control are how a true believer lives their life every day – as designated by the leader.

In the systems of control, we find a glimmer of the larger idea of bounded choice. It’s common that within the systems of control, cult members believe that they’re free to make their own choices about how they live their lives, but if they’re true believers, the choice is only an illusion. For the cult NXIVM, this was because members were blackmailed along with being manipulated. But in your workplace, the systems of control might be less noticeable.

If you ever find yourself explaining or describing your thoughts on a project to management, knowing full well that they already have a way in which to execute the project that tows the company line, that’s a relatively normal expectation. But if leaders tell you to choose for yourself, all while implying that if you don’t adhere to their guidelines then you may be fired, that’s a bigger problem – especially if all the while, they’re chanting in your ear about the importance of company culture, and “setting a good example.”

Systems of influence

The final component to an ideal cult, or cultist workplace, is the systems of influence. In the building blocks of an idea cult, this is the actual concrete and brick used to form the self-sealing system of behaviors, actions, and ideas. Whereas many cult ideas usually come from the top, the systems of influence are the perpetually gestating organism of social relationships and interactions that promulgate new cultural norms.

These are the attitudes your coworkers have, the things they think and believe as a result of working in the business, and how they act as a result. Notions like self-hate, sadism, and masochism are often used as control mechanisms within cult members, as unconsciously they may wish to perpetuate the cycle of violence that leaders have foisted upon them.

Another example of influence is that of the constant presence of company ancestry in your ear, giving you instructions on what move to make next. In Heaven’s Gate, cult members would tell new recruits that at all times, you must be thinking, “What would my Older Member have me do?” and conform exactly to that standard. The question in a cultish business might instead be, “What would my project manager have me do?” with the constant threat that if you don’t obey it to an exacting degree, you’ll be punished.