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Cult(ure)



The Great Regret”. This is a topic gaining coverage as a follow up to “The Great Resignation” we heard so much about in 2020 and 2021. It seems many folks who left their jobs for presumably greener pastures did not land in what was promised. According to this article in Forbes, about a third of those who left their jobs report not having a good outcome. The author quotes a study from Harvard Business Review which states that “Within only 90 days of employment, respondents to the survey said that they resigned due to “organizational culture and the mismanagement of workplace expectations.” Apparently, “about 72% of respondents replied that they were disappointed in the new role and it was different from what they were led to believe during the interview process.”


And so it is the same in the TV show Severance. I shared some thoughts on the show on the previous installment and this is part two. We see multiple Lumon workers regret their decision to sever their home life from their work life and vice versa. They feel incomplete and are frankly getting tired of the emotional, mental, and sometimes physical abuse they suffer at work. The culture at Lumon is not a culture at all but a cult. That got me thinking: are there parallels in unhealthy work cultures and cults? Do we sometimes employ coercion and fear in the workplace instead of buy in? Are there work expectations that break decency boundaries? Have we accepted some cultural norms are normal even though they are not? Does how we perceive what’s okay at work harm us and/or help us as we search for greener pastures? Speaking of pastures, the goats in episode five are super cute. I don’t want to know their true purpose!


Back to culture. Culture can be hard to define and of course varies from one organization to another. I once heard someone say that culture is more difficult than rocket science. I cannot recall where I heard that, but Forbes seems to agree. There are so many areas we can tackle as we discuss culture but for now, I’ll share thoughts on two: perks and boundaries. The following quote encapsulates the importance of the right culture. It is a paraphrased thought from Alison Green, from Ask a Manager: “Working somewhere terrible gives you terrible work habits and normalizes strange things.”


As we see in Severance, employees are given rewards that can only be described as the most basic, minimal effort rewards one can think of. Meet 100% of your quota this month? Guess what? You get to have deviled eggs AND choose a song that you can all dance to! Forced dancing at that. How fun! Let’s not forget one member of your team can also have waffles. When the possibility of receiving an additional finger trap motivates you even though your coworker is highly intrusive and hurts your loved ones with mind games, there is probably a red flag somewhere. If an employee is looking forward to receiving a new tote bag for their ops manual as the highlight of the year, we should question where we went wrong.


Now, perks have their place and showing appreciation even in small ways is of course important. I share about that here. My point is perks does not equal culture. As a leadership team, if we think T-Shirts, snacks, pizza or finger traps will do just the trick to keep our workforce engaged and create a positive culture, we are missing the mark. If we deride each other to the point of abuse and think a dance party will fix it, we are normalizing a strange mindset.


The culture at Lumon includes warped boundaries. Although the employees are able to literally leave all memory of their personal lives outside of work and all memories of their work life inside of work, the management team routinely follows them outside of work hours and even compels them, by force, to have therapeutic sessions where the employees must confess and apologize for their mistakes. This is where you may be thinking, “That’s TV. What does that have to do with real life?” If we’ve searched information on a worker’s social media for no other reason than morbid curiosity and then held information learned there against them at work, that’s intrusive and unwarranted. This assumes the information was irrelevant to the job or their work performance.


If the expectation that we behave like “family” only goes one way (that only benefits the organization) and we expect employees to put work and productivity over their own needs regardless of legitimate concerns or out of the ordinary and protected circumstances they may have at home, this is not a family oriented culture. I personally dislike the term “family” in this context. In most families, you’re not placed on a PIP if you don’t unload the dishwasher properly or get fired for not putting your clothes right side in before placing in the laundry basket. I said most, ha!


In the work context, I prefer the term “community”. The workplace can and should be enriching, enjoyable, engaging, and edifying but family may be a stretch. Plus, if you come from a dysfunctional family, do you really want your place of work to feel like family? All I can think of with “family” in the workplace is the overstepping of boundaries and guilt trips. And that is exactly what happens in some workplaces when “family” goes too far. We sometimes give preferential treatment to some solely on the basis of liking them better, and some may get treated like outcasts because “they are not a culture fit”, whatever that means. The latter can sometimes lead to issues of bias and even discrimination.


If the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that we are adaptable and open to positive change. We don’t always know what positive is or what healthy norms are but we are eager to find such a place. That place can be our own organizations.


How do we shift from trying to improve our culture to building community in the workplace?


PS – if you noticed that the title looks like Culture and Cult Cured that was intentional :-)







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