by Paul T. Cottey

What to do if you work in a ‘personality cult’ environment

Jun 13, 2016
IT Leadership

Do you work in a personality cult? How to tell and what to do about it.

A personality cult is a situation in which a leader controls an organization through force of personality and the control of the communication channels.

The problem with personality cults is that they come to rely overly-much on a single person. Instead of being as smart as the combination of a group, personality cults tend to be only as smart (or talented, or insightful, or clever) as the personality him/herself. Although this can work very well if the person is truly as brilliant as he/she thinks (for example, Steve Jobs), it can also unnecessarily limit the team’s effectiveness (think about the leaders of a country immediately north of the 38th parallel north).

Sometimes it is great to be swept along with a leader’s vision. Much of the time, however, living in a personality cult is difficult and even unpleasant.

Do you work in a world dominated by a single personality? Here is how to tell:

  • Is there a person referred to unambiguously by a single name? Think “Sting” or “Hillary” or “Barbie.”
  • Is that person referenced ex cathedra to support or reject an action? “Michael wouldn’t like that.”
  • Does the person make decisions which appear arbitrary or inconsistent with decisions made in similar situations in the past?
  • Do people guess at what the person would want you to do, instead of asking the person? “What would do?”

OK. You’ve concluded you work in a personality cult. Take a deep breath. Here is what you can do to combat the pernicious downside but keep the upside:

  • Don’t wait to be told that you are wrong, engage early. Get feedback when it still can be incorporated into the plans.
  • Make good use of the personality’s skills. If the person is a stickler for getting every word right in a publication, then give the person editorial control.
  • Call the bluff of the person invoking the personality’s name: “Michael wouldn’t like that.” “OK. Let’s go ask him. He has always listened to money-saving ideas before.”
  • Take your lumps and learn from them. If your ideas continue to get shot down, understand why. There may be a missing insight that, once you have it, causes a number of other pieces fall into place.

If the personality’s behavior truly is arbitrary, and if you are not learning anything, then it may be that it is time for you to move on.