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If your company seems like a cult, it might be

Two psychiatrists warn about the risks of abusive behavior behind practices meant to strengthen employee loyalty

Javier Bardem, protagonist of the film 'The Good Boss,' in a scene from the movie.

“Well, you know that my wife and I don’t have children. And we don’t need them. You are our children.” The phrase by Blanco, the charismatic boss played by Javier Bardem in The Good Boss during a speech to his employees, may sound familiar. It’s a common idea in small and medium-sized companies: the business is a family where everyone belongs; everyone has a responsibility to one another, because the wellbeing of the father and the children are intertwined. In larger companies, participating in a well-known organization with global impact can reinforce employees’ sense of identity. While supervisors may be drawn to such strategies to increase workplace motivation, some psychiatrists warn that techniques meant to strengthen the bonds between workers and their companies can trigger pathological behaviors.

In 1953, the psychiatrist Robert Lifton established a series of criteria for institutions that exercise cult-like control over individuals in order to ensure they fit perfectly into the group. “One of them is control of the environment. The group controls who the person can and cannot relate to, trying to alienate them from family and friends. This is something that happens, to a certain extent, in the Big Four [the large auditing and consulting multinationals known for their long working hours]. Because of the number of hours you have to put in, the worker’s main relationship becomes the one they have with work,” explains Íñigo Rubio, president of the Ibero-American Association for the Investigation of Psychological Abuse (AIIAP).

Rubio mentions another common trait between such overly demanding companies and cults: the demand for purity. “You are always asked to give more, and you experience a continuous feeling of guilt for not doing enough,” he says. “As you climb the hierarchy of the organization, you have more power, but you become more and more trapped, all within a discourse that promises salvation and a great job in exchange for years of complete dedication,” he explains. Workers’ exploitation by companies was once much easier to discern. Now, a discourse that sells one’s belonging to the company as a form of personal development, labor relationships are murkier. In an interview published by this newspaper, the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han referred to the manipulation that can encourage abusive behavior by some companies: “We live with the anguish of not always doing everything we can. Now one exploits oneself by imagining that one is self-actualizing.”

You’re working for a salary, not joining the military

Churches, like other large organizations that want to promote their members’ closeness, are well aware of the value of rituals in promoting group cohesion. Some companies resort to the same practices. In the 1930s, in the US, IBM workers received a book with songs praising the company and its leader, Thomas Watson. Some songs can still be heard on their own website. IBM has since abandoned that tradition, but Walmart employees still do what is known as the Walmart cheer, a chant that emphasizes that the customer always comes first.

Miguel Perlado, a psychologist and expert in cults, works with people who are involved in abusive group dynamics in non-cult contexts. “I have worked with cults, but also in the context of theater or music, where there may be dynamics of abuse of power, unequal relationships that serve to control the individual or that favor abuse of women,” he explains. He has also consulted for companies seeking to improve their labor practices. “There are business contexts in which practices that we otherwise consider abusive are idealized, because they monopolize the lives of workers and leave them no space for their personal lives. Within the organization, they are a sign of involvement and dedication,” he says.

The psychologist warns that the lines between motivational practices and abuse can be blurry. “Mercadona and Lidl, in the first stages of recruitment, carry out a motivational activity to promote loyalty and identification with the company,” he says. “You have to pay attention and respect sensitive areas, because these motivational activities are aimed at people’s identity. They are asked to reframe their identities to include the company,” he says. “Our task is to provide people with discernment criteria to see if they are overcommitting themselves or if the company demands too much,” Perlado adds. “We all have a need to belong, and in our cultural environment that can be provided by the company, but you go to a company to work for a salary, not to join the military.’

But not everyone experiences the same business culture in the same way. Amazon’s 14 leadership principles focus on the customer and demand a high level of collective success, sometimes at the expense of workers, drawing intense criticism of the company. As a result of that criticism, shortly before leaving the company, Jeff Bezos added two more principles, one of which focused on being the best employer on Earth. One former employee of the company, who does not want to give their name, believes that “corporate principles are not a way to reprogram people, but to organize them when you have so many people from so many different countries and cultures working together.” “Everyone learns to talk about their work through those principles, and it makes it quite reasonable to talk to an Indian, a Japanese or a Russian. You speak from the culture of Amazon and not from your personal culture, and that makes it possible to work in a transnational company,” he says.

“The fact that a group may have cult-like characteristics or coercive behavior does not imply that all members of the group are unhappy or that they suffer or exercise the same level of abuse,” says Rubio. “As Eric Fromm explains in The Fear of Freedom, during the 20th century freedoms and rights have been gained, but that freedom can sometimes be distressing, because it makes you more responsible for your life and your decisions. There are people who may want to give up their freedom in exchange for greater security or to feel part of something bigger. Many abusive behaviors are sold in a positive light, as a way to get workers to know each other better and to be more attached to the company and the leader. “Just like in a romantic relationship, a relationship of abuse or excessive control can be approached from another point of view, as something beautiful, as two inseparable people. Abusive behavior in business, or even in a cult, does not start with malicious intent. People, at first, believe in their mission. Cult leaders often believe the story they are telling and have good intentions,” Rubio says. Being aware that the risk exists, and identifying it when it becomes a reality, can prevent falling into behavior more typical of a cult than of a job.

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