Dear Friends,

When does work culture become a work cult?

Since last year's Wild, Wild Country, a compelling documentary about the Rajneesh movement, conversations about cults are back. 

The excellent Escaping NXIVM podcast offers an intimate portrait of everyday people moving ever deeper towards a charismatic, controlling leader. But cults don't need to be mysterious. Cult-like activity is everywhere.

WeWork's fall from grace has been surrounded by stories of cult-like leadership, with Adam Neumann openly joining the Chabad movement this week. The LuLaRue pyramid scheme is as heartbreaking as the Bay Area Latitude Society is beguiling.

But why does this happen?! And why, especially, in organizations that have a mission far bigger than money? 

Because, writes Karen Lebacqz’s in her book Professional Ethics, their leaders "have the power to define reality."

Lebacqz's book is required reading for many trainee ministers. It illustrates three frames in which a religious leader must engage ethical decision making. 
  1. Following the rules (duties)
  2. Living the virtues (character)
  3. Understanding power (structure)
And it is this third element - power - that makes dependence on individual virtue an insufficient corrective.

"The primary role of clergy is rarely defined as “the social construction of reality”…Yet that is precisely what clergy do," writes Lebacqz. And with mission-driven organizational leaders increasingly playing the role of moral, pastoral and even spiritual leader, it is - in part - this power that leads so many good-hearted people into destructive situations.

The charity boss who supplies his interns with cocaine, the Buddhist leader who sexually assaults his followers, the wellbeing company boss who bullies her staff.

Take campaign organization Avaaz, whose recent GlassDoor reviews read like a litany of cult-exposés. 
"Everyone starts speaking the same way and believing the same thing...Director has a lot of emphasis on rituals and storytelling. Too many crossed boundaries and unhealthy behaviors."

"Run like a cult. Make the top-dog feel questioned/threatened and he'll bear his teeth."

"Emotionally manipulative, a CEO with unchecked power, tons of gaslighting. Once I committed to leaving, I started watching documentaries on cults to help understand what just happened. It was extremely helpful."

Over the last few months, large numbers of staff have quit as the organization has gone 'all in' on deep psychology and inner work in the workplace. Through transformative retreats, intense personal coaching, and psychological evaluative tools, its leaders bring up deep psychological issues (for example a relationship to an abusive father) in weekly one-to-ones and use a personal loyalty test to the founder to determine staff seniority. And all of this with minimal board oversight.

Whether in congregations or organizations, leaders who cross boundaries always have an interior logic that justifies the behavior. For example, "We're a unique organization and it is precisely because we do things differently that we'll be effective." Staff start to self-reinforce this to themselves, "I know this is weird...but this is how we're going to solve climate change/end poverty/etc." 

This is spiritual violence.

Lebacqz explains, "The protective mechanism of reciprocal intimacy which generally exists in family and friendship settings is lacking in most delivery of professional care." It is imposed intimacy. One cannot survive within the organization without divulging details of one's life that are deeply sensitive, perhaps even incriminating. 

Of course, leaders also participate in sharing stories from their own lives, at a retreat camp fire, for instance. But Lebacqz rejects this notion of equality. 

"They may chose to share from their personal histories, but the sharing is chosen and controlled by them, not by what the [employee] wants to know. When [employees] share with [leader], the extent and nature of what is shared are often controlled by the [leader]."

So what's the alternative? Soulless, automaton-like, cold working relationships?

Of course not. 

Earlier this month I visited the headquarters of Etsy - itself no stranger to organizational turmoil.

But instead of centering a single leader, Etsy has invested in an infrastructure of small groups, what they call Dens. Framed as communities of practice, Dens bring together staff across departments at the same level of seniority and are supported by facilitators. This means nobody is in a Den with their superior, or with staff more junior than themselves.

Created to increase management skills, reduce isolation, and break down silos, Dens have the added benefit of offering a space of introspection, solace and accountability. Set up for six sessions over twelve weeks, many Dens have gone on for much longer, with some going steady across multiple years.

With time, employees share struggles in their health, marriage, and family. It becomes a trustworthy group - made possible by organizational leaders, but not oriented around them. In fact, groups that last longer than the first few months often "go rogue" and stop interacting with the administrators that helped found them!

The frame is around learning, not personal healing. A well-defined end date is offered when participants start, and the entire program is voluntary. 

Of course not every organization has the size or resources to implement a program of this maturity. But as workplaces continue to become sites of community and meaning-making, it is high time to take ethicists like Lebacqz seriously and find Den-like models that offer a healthy way forward.

Have a wonderful weekend, Shabbat Shalom,

PS. Another extraordinary Pew report was released this month, revealing that 40% of American Millennials are now non-religious. Forty percent! This is era defining stuff. 

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.
Denise Levertov
Copyright © 2018 Casper ter Kuile, All rights reserved.

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