Can you tell the difference between a cult and your startup? Take the test.

 

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The tech community and startup culture has a long, widely-recognized history of romanticizing a cult-like approach for building successful companies.  Popular tech media publications like Wired have published pieces on the topic: You Should Run Your Startup Like a Cult. Here’s How, Inc.‘s The Cult-Like Cultures of Amazing Startups,  Forbes Are Successful Companies The New Cults?, Fast Company‘s Facebook VP’s Leaked 2016 Memo Betrays Cult-like Obsession With Growth, and Fortune‘s Fired Google Engineer: Tech Company Is ‘Like a Cult’.  It goes without saying that the rapid rise  and influence of technology companies have changed nearly every facet of the world as we know it.  Living and working within Silicon Valley’s tech ecosystem, I see firsthand how the ubiquitous mantra “our mission is to change the world” permeates organizations.  Have we lost sight of the line between cult and ‘cult-like’?  Is the over-use of the cult-inspired phrase “drinking the kool-aid” in tech pop culture a sign we have become numb to the real differences that exist between cults and startups?

Many years ago I had the privilege of completing coursework taught by renowned forensic psychologist Dr. Margaret Singer, a world expert on brainwashing, cults and psychopathy.  In her long career, she investigated and testified about techniques used by North Koreans against American soldiers in wartime, the Symbionese Liberation Army‘s influence over the kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst, David Koresh in Waco with Branch Davidians, and countless other criminal cases examining psychopathy, cults, and serial killers.  Dr. Singer helped several people leave the San Francisco-based religious group Peoples Temple before 900 of the members committed mass suicide in Jonestown in 1978 by drinking kool-aid flavored cyanide.  Even in her late 70’s, Dr. Singer remained a formidable speaker and made a deep, long-lasting impression on me about the irresistible charisma of cult leaders, and the lure they had over their members.  I’ve outlined the key principles she taught as fundamental to a cult’s ability to successfully wield power over others.

Read through the following 15 tactics and ask yourself, can you tell the difference between a cult and your startup?

Submission:

  • Complete, nearly unquestioned trust is bestowed to the leadership.  Doubt and dissent are highly discouraged and may be met with uniquely tailored forms of punishment.
  • Leaders are given prophet-like power within the group, and embraced as special, visionary, ‘highly gifted’ individuals with unusual connections to a critical higher purpose or higher power.
  • Increased submission to the leadership is rewarded with additional responsibilities and/or roles, and/or praises, increasing the importance of the person within the group.

Exclusivity:

  • The group is the only ‘true’ belief system, and members are encouraged to think of themselves as elite and enlightened for their involvement in the group’s membership

Persecution complex:

  • ‘Us against them’ mentality is encouraged as a means to unify the group, and reinforce the group’s mission against outside thought or influence.  Extreme efforts to protect and shield the group from outside threats are manifested by expecting members to devote inordinate amounts of time to group-related activities, including recruiting.

Control

  • Keep members unaware of what is going on and how they are being changed a step at a time.  Potential new members are led, step by step, through a behavioral-change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group.  The goal may be to make them deployable agents for the leadership, to get them to ‘invest’ in the group, or make a deeper commitment, depending on the leader’s aim and desires.
  • Total control of members’ thoughts, feelings and actions through repeated indoctrination and/or threats of loss of affiliation with the group’s special purpose. Members are rewarded for their expressions of loyalty, and are made to fear negative consequences for expressing autonomy of thought.
  • Members are encouraged to believe that they will experience deep loss (of love, financial opportunity, respect from a revered community) or danger should they lose their group affiliation.

Isolation

  • Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in group members.  This is accomplished by getting members away from the normal social support group for a period of time and into an environment where the majority of people are already group members.  The members serve as models of the attitudes and behaviors of the group and speak an in-group language.
  • This facilitates further control over the thinking and practices of the members by the leadership.

Love Bombing:

  • Showering great attention, , gifts of affirmation and love to a person in the group (especially newcomers) by others in the group, to help transfer emotional dependence to the group.
  • Threats of loss of love and severing of meaningful in-group relationships are used to maintain loyalty.

Special Knowledge:

  • Special knowledge and instructions comes from the empowered leader who is thought to have rare gift for predicting the future. This leader then instructs the members how to carry out plans according to this vision.
  • The special knowledge may be received through visions, dreams, or new interpretations of revered content from past adored thought leaders and their teachings.

Indoctrination:

  • Control of a person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time.  Through various methods, newer members are kept busy and led to think about the group and its content during as much of their waking time as possible.
  • Manipulating a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity. Manipulation of experiences can be accomplished through various methods of trance induction, including leaders using such techniques as paced speaking patterns, guided imagery, chanting, long prayer sessions or lectures, induced states of physical taxation through sweat lodge sessions, fasting, hard labor.
  • The teachings of the group are repeatedly drilled into the members, but the indoctrination usually occurs around a system of ‘special knowledge’.

Salvation:

  • Salvation from the judgment of a higher power is maintained through association and/or submission with the group, its authority, and/or its special knowledge.

Group Think:

  • The group’s coherence is maintained by the observance to policies handed down from those in authority.
  • There is an internal enforcement of policies by members who reward “proper” behavior, and those who perform properly are rewarded with further inclusion, increased power and acceptance by the group.
  •  If one expresses a question, he or she is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to be questioning.

Cognitive Dissonance:

  • Avoidance of critical thinking and/or maintaining logically impossible beliefs and/or beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the group.
  • Avoidance of and/or denial of any facts that might contradict the group’s belief system.

Shunning:

  • Those who do not tightly align with group policies are shunned and/or expelled, and remaining members are encouraged to see their exit as a personal failure and/or irreversible damnation.

Gender Roles:

  • Control of gender roles and definitions are maintained by the group’s power hierarchy to maintain rank and order.
  • Gender differences may be used for sexual exploitation of those with less power within the group by those with higher group rank.
  • Sexual favors may be encouraged to display group loyalty or affiliation with group leadership.

Appearance Standards:

  • A common appearance that signifies group membership is strongly encouraged or required.  There may be appearance differences that draw attention to group rank to reinforce the group’s hierarchy.
  • Differences in appearance among group members are created to convey special achievements in upholding the group’s tenets or purpose.

Lack of Accountability:

  • Group leaders are not held accountable for any mistakes or wrongdoings because of their special status within the group.
  • Group leaders are often protected from negative evaluation by other group members through systematic secrecy, and are treated according to special rules that free the leaders from accountability.
  • A closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure is used, permitting no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.  The group has a top-down, pyramid structure.  The leaders must have verbal ways of never losing.

 

References:

(Singer, 1995)

Cults in Our Midst, The Continued Fight Against Their Menace

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Olympic athletes and entrepreneurs share one critical trait to conquer pressure under fire.

In sports, mental toughness is defined as “the ability to consistently perform in the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”  The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea have been rife with performances by athletes with well honed mental toughness, giving them the competitive edge over athletes with matched or even higher ranking talent.  Two-time U.S. champion figure skater Nathan Chen was the gold medal frontrunner heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, only to crumble under pressure during his Olympic debut, underscoring how critical it is for young athletes to harness mental toughness under extreme pressure.  It was a devastating outcome for Chen, the most talented US men’s figure skater to compete in the sport in recent memory. 

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U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon’s incredible grace under pressure has been widely recognized during this winter’s Olympic Games, especially given the level of criticism he’s received for being the first openly gay American figure skater to ever compete at the Olympics.  His positive attitude, willingness to lead with charisma and humor, and champion performances have catapulted him beyond just physical mastery as an athlete.

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If anyone in the business world ever needed mental toughness at their disposal, it’s an entrepreneur.  Investors and other tech industry insiders all agree that startup success is all about mental preparedness, tenacity, and skillful pitch execution under high stakes circumstances.  Entrepreneurs regularly face cutthroat competitors and critics, and must be able to push their ideas and products past consumers resistance to change.  In his most recent book “Executive Toughness,” Dr. Jason Selk discusses mental toughness and other shared traits between sports and business high performers.  Given the self-driving nature of entrepreneurial work, startup founders must exemplify this critical trait to prevail.  In his Harvard Business Review article “How the Best of the Best Get Better,” sports psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions Dr. Graham Jones says, “Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability — coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities — just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.”

After living and working in and around Silicon Valley for more than 20 years I’ve seen firsthand the underpinnings of mental toughness, the stamina it takes to succeed here, and the price those people pay to stay at the top.  Through executive coaching I’ve supported top organizational leaders through pivotal growth periods in life and business, leveraging best practices from peak performance psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral design and critical communication skill acquisition.  

Top 5 best practices for augmenting mental toughness:

  1. Notice the subtle shifts in your physiology and thought patterns, and where they drive your emotions, behaviors and decision-making.  Cultivate control over this chain reaction through mindfulness training, and commit to embodying your most unflappable self in high stakes situations.  Use tools like visualization, auditory prompts and self-directing phrases to tap into deep learning through habit formation.
  2. Prepare confidence-boosting engagement and response scripts to the three most challenging interpersonal situations you face.  This is especially helpful for those who aren’t naturally charismatic, because they serve as a guideline for how to best interact with people. Well-developed and practiced interpersonal responses work to center you, bringing you back to a place of familiarity, reducing socially anxious reactions that can interfere with peak performance.
  3. Develop a relentless and optimistic ‘solution focused mindset’. It is so irresistible to ride the wave of emotion that surges when facing a hard problem. Our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective options.  Approach all potential solutions one step at a time, giving yourself time to process your emotions first.  Even mapping out a single step completion is progress and an improvement to the current situation. Remember you can’t solve all problems at once, so choose one and stay focused on it until measurable progress is made.
  4. When you set your mind to do something, find a way to get it done, no matter what. While a relentless solution focus is the mental step, behavioral discipline is the action step that makes effective solutions materialize. In this way, discipline delivers success. Make discipline a habit by looking out for triggering temptations and planning accordingly.
  5. Be willing to embrace change.  Mentally tough people are flexible, constantly adapting in order to solve for best possible outcomes.  Fear of change is paralyzing and a major threat to one’s progress towards broader goals for fulfillment and happiness. 

A backbone of mental toughness is essential for providing the courage and internal compass that top competitors rely on to steer through the challenges they face. It also emboldens them to take on new opportunities for learning and growth- healthy life habits for effectively navigating stress, conflict and crises.  If you can develop mastery in this, you win!

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Smart solutions when productivity stalls- perspective is everything

You know that feeling when you’re stalled by something that needs to get done?  Even the most efficient people face roadblocks in their productivity from time to time.  This is especially frustrating for people who are used to completing challenging tasks with relative ease.  I recently met with an accomplished young gaming engineer for executive coaching to support his exploration of new work opportunities in Silicon Valley.  He revealed that he’d struggled for hours to complete a cover letter email, and this left him feeling baffled and weary about the whole process of interviewing for new employment.  We used the session to get to the root of what was creating this stall in productivity, and generated smart solutions based on his personal strengths.  Strategy and perspective makes all the difference.

Working with the Bay Area’s talented tech community has taught me this- the smartest people take it the hardest when their performance and results don’t meet their expectations!  Many have grown accustomed to things coming easily to them and have quickly advanced in their chosen career trajectory.  Early giftedness in STEM can sometimes lead to people develop an identity centered around being ‘brainy and capable’.  It may come as a shock when something as simple as creating a cover letter sidelines them and deflates their sense of efficacy.

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Why does this happen?  Over time, our strengths get reinforced as our primary means of solving problems because they get us from point A to point B quickly and easily.  Since these same strengths are also tied to our sense of identity and self worth, we become less willing to set them aside and use other methods of ‘solving’.  Tasks that force us to operate outside of our comfort zone trigger feelings of frustration because we aren’t as effective as we’re used to feeling, which stalls our productivity.  A guy who’s honed skills as a talented engineer, fluent in the most sought after programming languages will probably not be as adroit at English writing composition and will likely need to give himself more leeway in completing a thoughtfully composed cover letter.

Apply a smart solutions formula when your productivity stalls:
1. Conscious self-awareness.  Identify the evidence in your life (historically and currently) of how and when you have leveraged your personal strengths to achieve good outcomes.  How did your strengths allow you to perform optimally?  Result outcomes might be found in academic, career advancement, kinesthetic/athletic, social/interpersonal, emotional, musical, aesthetic, experiential, operational or other realms of functionality.

“I can recognize times in my life when my skills and abilities have allowed me to make progress, overcome obstacles, and reach important goals that have led me to where I am now.”

2. Balanced self-acceptance.  Scientific advancements in human cognition and intelligence reveal that all people possess strengths and weaknesses relative to their overall functioning.  To expect to function only by means of our strengths is unrealistic.  Sometimes we must be willing to step back from our most comfortable mode of operating and acknowledge certain tasks don’t call for our ideal skill set.

“This task calls for specific skills that I don’t practice as often (e.g. writing English composition).  I can’t rely on my core strengths to complete it.  I must be willing to feel uncomfortable if I’m to make progress.  So what?  That’s true for everyone sometimes.  If I let this slower pace of progress demoralize me it could stop me from getting from point A to point B.  Any pace will do, as long as I’m trying to move forward.”

3. Realistic expectations.  Plan to break down larger goals into chunks that are achievable and utilize breaks to regain energy.  Attempting to complete a difficult task in one fell swoop doesn’t lead to efficiency, it’s a set up for failure.  When you’re using your brain to work in less familiar ways, expect to take breaks before your mental energy begins to stall so your overall motivation remains strong.  This way you avoid feeling demoralized and progress remains steady.

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4. Shift perspective.  Pay attention to how you’re evaluating yourself- when we only measure our progress based on ‘results’ rather than ‘performance effort’ we can end up feeling ineffective or lose our sense of purpose.  Another coaching client of mine works in a highly specialized area of machine learning/artificial intelligence (AI).  While there has been genuine advances and exciting new applications here in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world, the field remains experimental, and it still requires time-consuming, exploratory research.  Even the most brilliant minds working together face a sense of disappointment when big breakthroughs don’t happen, especially with constant media hype  fueling the AI frenzy.  If you are working on the cutting edge of new scientific discovery, it may be difficult to quantify progress and demonstrate measurable value compared to an ever-changing larger community.  While it’s natural to want to make comparisons, track and measure your contributions by ‘showing your work’ rather than evaluating yourself on outcome results alone.  By documenting your steps in the scientific process, generating strategic hypotheses, testing them critically through observations and experiments you are creating a useful path of ‘knowledge’ as you arrive at Type 1 or Type 2 errors, etc.  Find value in documenting how you’ve made progress to better direct your future paths of discovery.

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5. Prepare to use trial and error.  If one particular process of completing a task isn’t coming together, try a different plan of action.  Step away from a task and let your brain absorb the learning and develop new insights.  Go back with fresh eyes in regular intervals and adjust accordingly, and practice applying new insights.  According to the latest neuroscience,  researchers have discovered that moments of creativity take place when the mind is at rest rather than directly working on something.  Since creative approaches are so crucial to success, be sure to give yourself space from your work efforts.

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Bringing it all together:  Discover optimal productivity methods based on your personal strengths and challenges.  Practice applying a perspective that takes into account all the moving parts and your abilities before comparing your pace to others.  Remember that everyone hits roadblocks from time to time; taking this mindful approach and using smart solutions will help you overcome them as efficiently as possible.