September 3, 2012 7:43 pm

You can take the cult out of culture

There’s much to be gained by encouraging positive attitudes but take care not to go too far

Among many proposals about how to restore a positive corporate culture at companies that have lost their way, no one has yet suggested a good singalong.

But around the world, the mills are alive with the sound of music. These days, my Tokyo colleagues report, Japanese corporate anthems tend to be hummable tunes rather than bold hymns to growth. But all new staff at Yamaha Motor still learn the company song, which dates from 1980, while a number called “Romantic Railways” can be heard during lunchbreaks at JR Kyushu, a rail company. Big South Korean companies like to have a song and a motto laying out corporate values. Employees at Broad Group, a Chinese air conditioner company now aiming to build the world’s tallest skyscraper out of prefabricated blocks, chant their anthem (“I love our clients and help them grow their value”) every day. According to the FT, Broad’s micromanaging chairman, Zhang Yue, has also laid down 110 rules employees must commit to memory.

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Andrew Hill

The use of songs to encourage a sense of community at work is not unique to Asia (studies have tracked down corporate choruses and cover versions from AT&T to IBM). But western sophisticates still tend to dismiss mass singsongs and prescriptive corporate codes as evidence of a “cult-like” mentality. They say companies should, instead, encourage individuality and nonconformism, which can trigger innovative breakthroughs.

But here’s an interesting paradox. A “cult-like following” is exactly what the world’s marketers hope to foster for their products, be they Jimmy Choo shoes, Krispy Kreme doughnuts or anything by Apple. Company leaders – Li Ka-shing or Warren Buffett, say – can inspire devotion and are often held in awe. Executives obsess about whether customers would “evangelise” about the product or company and “convert” their friends, even if they would shy away from comparisons with the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s indubitably cult-like, Unification Church.

The loudest sneers at quasi-religious corporate behaviour usually come from competitors because cults are, by definition, very successful. A “cult-like culture” was one of the fundamental attributes of companies that were “built to last”, according to Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, in their classic book of the same name.

Some element of the cult is certainly useful to motivate staff and keep customers loyal. The line between a strong culture, cult-like practices and a fully fledged cult is blurred. Rev Moon was expert at exploiting it. But how far along the spectrum between cacophony and chorus should companies go?

All companies have a culture, usually formed by what their leaders say and do, even if some outcomes are unintended. I was once part of an FT delegation shown round the New York Times newsroom by then editor Joe Lelyveld, who seemed to me to be the antithesis of a cult leader. He recalled how he had once idly nixed a photo of the back-view of a politician on the stump. Months later, he heard a group of sub-editors citing this decision as though it was a blanket veto from on high on the use of such pictures.

Leaders need to cultivate the culture, if only to prevent it growing in the wrong direction. How they do so will depend on the person – and the company. Not every organisation would benefit from Mr Zhang’s 110 rules, though if I were a potential tenant for the 220th storey of his prefab skyscraper, I would welcome the attention to detail and devotion to duty of the entrepreneur and his staff. But plenty of chief executives distribute written principles and many of them post such values on the factory and office walls.

The critical difference between cultures and cults is that whereas a new leader can change a bad culture – albeit often with great difficulty – a cult’s direction is impossible to alter. That is why textbooks suggest companies should aim only to be like a cult. When the charismatic, Ozymandian chief of a cult leaves, dies or goes astray, the organisation itself risks tumbling into oblivion: in the corporate world, think of the last days of Enron or Lehman Brothers.

So by all means encourage worship of your products. Draw up a weighty handbook of behaviour. Drill it into your staff with unison chanting of the company song, if you really must. But take care, and remember: a healthy culture is usually open to challenge from its followers; a cult never is. All together now.

andrew.hill@ft.com

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