Book Review - Corporate Cults

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 2000, Volume 17, pages 195-199. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Corporate Cults: The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization

Dave Arnott

This is a thought-provoking book. Unfortunately the main thought it provokes is: how could such a bad book have ever found a publisher?

CSJ readers might be ‘lured’ towards it by the importance of the subject matter. Over the past decade pressures on managers and workers have intensified in virtually all organizations, and in most countries. Desperately ferreting around for innovative approaches to improve performance, many managers have latched onto the notion of corporate culture, possessed by a belief in its transformative powers. They have been encouraged to regard themselves as messianic leaders, charged with bringing vision, meaning and the mindset of True Believers to their organizations. It is no longer enough to manufacture burgers. You must also actually believe that they Mean Something. One of the best-known players in this area, Tom Peters, approvingly cites the founder of McDonald’s as saying: ‘You gotta see the beauty in a hamburger bun.’

In a typical sign of the times, just after reading this book, I picked up another tome entitled ‘Corporate Religion.’ The dust jacket informs us that ‘management has to unite the organization around a strong idea, a shared vision, and then manage accordingly. That makes tough demands. In the company of the future there will only be space for believers. Dissenters must look elsewhere.’ Sounds familiar? The book goes on to provide tips for the creation of a corporate religion, suggesting that employees be screened for ‘attitude’, in order to eliminate dissenters from the search process.

It is this phenomenon that Arnott, a management professor at Dallas Baptist University, rightly has in his sights. Sadly, his sights are out of alignment, and the bullets fired turn out to be mostly blanks.

Problems begin with the shrieking dust jacket. A be-suited male, his head shaven and emblazoned with both satanic insignia and the book’s title, glares out at the reader. Is he meant to symbolize an irresistible corporate leader, seeking new recruits? I detected the imminent approach of an empty argument, lightly disguised behind the cheap make up of tawdry sensationalism.

Arnott sets out his stall in the first chapter, by discussing the nature of corporate culture and the defining characteristics of a cult. This is an excellent point of departure. However, the definition offered of a cult revolves mostly around a textual analysis of the old Eagles song, Hotel California. (I am not making this up). We are then told that cults have three traits: devotion, charismatic leadership and separation from community. True, so far as it goes. However, much more is needed, to establish the concept of cultism in the minds of potential readers, few of whom would have much familiarity with the burgeoning literature on the topic. Regrettably, there is every sign in this book that Arnott shares their ignorance.

Chapter One proceeds to elucidate a dominant argument in the book – that there is a difference between who you are as a person and what you do. You mean more than your work. Corporate cults seek to blur this distinction, and lure people into an obsessional devotion to their workplace.

There is clearly some truth in this. A balanced life requires satisfaction in work, harder to achieve now than ever, and a fulfilling home and community life. However, I am less persuaded by the argument that we can simply assume a complete disconnection between who people are and what they do. If Arnott can make his point by citing research from The Eagles I am tempted to venture into similar territory. A recent CD by a British rock group features a photograph of an obese youth on its cover. He is wearing a tee-short adorned with the slogan: ‘I’m number one, so why try harder?’ The point seems to be that how you feel about yourself over-rides everything else: so what if your life is meaningless, you do nothing worthwhile, and your health is endangered? However, I don’t buy the often well-intentioned distinction between the inner essence of a person and their behavior. (A good topic for a song?) One could imagine Hitler using precisely such a defense had he reached the Nuremberg trials. ‘Hey, I’m a nice guy too. Pity about the concentration camps, but that was only what I did, not who I am.’

Arnott propounds the distinction throughout this book, evidently intending to promote a humanistic ethos in the workplace. I believe that his approach leads in the opposite direction. There is no intrinsic reason why work should be alienating, with people compelled to seek all personal satisfaction outside the hours of nine to five and away from where they earn their living. Yet this is the logical conclusion to Arnott’s analysis. His message is that we should fulfill all our personal needs elsewhere. Anything which improves our affinity for work can be seen as just another attempt by the all-powerful organization to lure you into its belief system. And, indeed, Arnott seems to regard attempts to improve the quality of working life (child-care, gym facilities, evenings out with colleagues, health plans) in precisely this light. He doesn’t seem to notice that such benevolence is generally absent from the behavior of most documented cult leaders. Where, for example, were the gym facilities, expensive holidays and opulent meals in Jonestown?

A side effect of such an approach is that most organizations can be characterized as corporate cults, thereby devaluing the analytic worth of the term through indiscriminate usage. If most everything is a cult, the term carries no special explanatory power, and our analysis would have to move to a new level.

Corporate Cults is crammed with poorly thought out concepts and wild generalizations. Hard data has mostly gone walkabout. The problem is epitomized by Chapter Two. Starting from the assumption that people born in particular periods are likely to share common psychological characteristics (where is the evidence?), the author divides the population born since the depression period into five categories. Arnott seems to assume that those allocated to these essentially arbitrary categories share some kind of distinctive essence with each other. Thus we read that ‘Baby Boomers were encouraged to be free thinkers, to not trust the organizational establishment’ (p.22). Presumably, free thinkers and dissenters did not exist in earlier periods, while everyone born after 1945 smokes dope, opposed the Vietnam war and is contemplating the formation of a new Marxist sect. Other chapters make increasingly convoluted attempts to relate this approach to the recruiting habits of modern corporations, particularly those that might be deemed cults. Sadly, the elasticity of the concept, and its inadequate empirical presentation, thwarts the attempt, which collapses at each new hurdle. It is hard to run without legs.

However, even a rotten omelet can sometimes contain one good egg. Thus, Chapter Nine in this book offers useful pointers for future research. Corporate cultism is clearly an important issue. All types of organization can become cults – including businesses. (It is notable that one of the best-known business organizations to cause concern, Amway, doesn’t even rate a mention here). Arnott proposes at this point a Work Relationship Survey, designed to measure devotion, the charisma levels of perceived leaders and the extent of separation from the community. It is a commonplace in the field of cultic studies that there is a dearth of valid and reliable instruments with which to measure these processes. Despite the recent development of the Group Psychological Abuse scale there are still few good instruments with which to conduct research.

Arnott’s survey is adapted from three other questionnaires, which have been well validated and are clearly referenced in the academic literature. He has selected those items which pertain to the three domains he argues most characterize corporate cultism, and integrated them into a 20-point inventory. Unfortunately, he provides no information to justify his interpretation of the suggested rating system, or any validation data to support the instrument. However, the survey (and, most importantly, the sources from which it is drawn) could be of use for other researchers, interested in exploring this field.

I predict that there will be an increased interest in corporate cults in the years ahead. As people work longer hours, move around more frequently, feel the impact of globalization and gain exposure to the transformational efforts of people in suits who have convinced themselves that they are charismatic visionaries, critical questions will be asked.

It is to be hoped that we will soon see the publication of books which are serious about the topic, rather than ones which are just seriously bad.

Dennis Tourish, Ph.D.

University of Aberdeen

United Kingdom

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 17 2000