In popular management literature corporations are sometimes loosely compared to cults. The comparison is a severe allegation as it implies the transgression of subordinate employees’ integrity. This paper explores to what extent such comparisons with cults are warranted as well as the implications this has for the practice of corporate culture management. On grounds of the author’s unique, first-hand experience in both corporate and cultic environments a retrospective autoethnographic (RAE) approach was chosen to further explore the supposed resemblance. The comparison is structured along Lifton’s eight criteria of thought reform and reveals that although akin to cults in all aspects corporations also fundamentally differ due to the infeasibility, at least for now, of controlling the corporate environment in totalist fashion. This might explain why so many attempts to change corporate cultures fail as these initiatives are based on the anachronistic idea that culture change can be “implemented” by somehow “inculcating” employees with “company values.” A sanitized form of brainwashing that fails in the corporate environment.


culture change, corporate cult, indoctrination, totalism, retrospective autoethnography

Author Bio(s)

Dr. Ernst Patrick Graamans is an assistant professor of Culture and Leadership at the School of Business and Economics, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU). His fields of interest are qualitative research, philosophy of science, organizational culture, counterculture movements, business and peace, and leadership. From 2012 to 2020 Ernst worked for a consultancy firm that advises medium to large, profit and not-for-profit organizations at board level on strategy, culture, leadership and change management. Please direct correspondence to e.p.graamans@vu.nl


I would like to thank Professor Svetlana Khapova for giving me the opportunity to explore off-beat ideas in unconventional ways. I am forever grateful to B.P. Puri Goswami for his protection and spiritual counsel free from sectarianism. I thank my lovely wife Renske for making me smile. Lastly, I thank my beautiful children, Anand and Marley, for being the way they are.

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