The landscape of corporate culture grows ever more complex in the 21st century. As offices begin to look more like living rooms, and companies embrace a cultist attitude toward branding, it appears we may be heading for a complete blurring of life and work identities.
The battle about individual rights and freedoms is just as bloody now as it was 200 years ago - one could argue bloodier. And we continue to vehemently debate the extent government should reach into civic life. But what should the reach of corporate institutions be into our individual, subcultural, and societal lives?
Ethnographer and leadership expert Simon Sinek says, "If you don't understand people, you don't understand business."
Sinek argues that our survival depends on the ability to form trusting relationships - and he is not just referring to personal life.
Companies can only achieve greatness if they are honest about who they are and what they believe.
"In market industry," Sinek says, "We go ask people, 'How should we look and what should we say in order for you to like us more?'"
In other words. Companies' dependance on market research - on the very fabric of advertisement culture today - is based on fabrications of the truth.
Would we walk up to our best friend and say, "Hey, what should I wear to make you like me more? Should I speak differently? Eat differently?"
No. Of course not. It would be inauthentic and weird.
But this is exactly how dominant corporate culture operates. Sinek is making a call for radical honesty. He argues that as individuals and companies if we unveiled our true beliefs we would attract those who believe what we believe.
A community based on trust equals success, not just survival.
It is an inspiring position, albeit it a vague one. It at once raises the essential contemporary issue of transparency while setting off red flags in any skeptics prefrontal cortex. How can huge corporations embrace diversity while demanding shared ideology? Or does the more pressing question concern the dangers of promoting intensely like-minded economic subcultures?
Haven't we seen what happens when a corporation emboldens it's employees to a well defined "internal constitution"? Take the sordid history of the massive yoga apparel enterprise Lululemon. It speaks to the power of a streamlined corporate culture that blurs the boundaries between life and work.
Fast Company laid out Lululemon founder and chairman Chip Wilson's cult branding success quite nicely:
Wilson has mixed a heady self-actualizing cocktail from equal parts Landmark Forum (seminars based on the philosophy of Werner Erhard), the books of motivational business guru Brian Tracy, and Oprah-endorsed best seller The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. He is now hard at work formalizing them in a Lululemon "internal constitution."
"It's the first time I've heard of anyone almost directly using the techniques of cults and applying them to their business," says Douglas Atkin, author of The Culting of Brands. Drawing on those techniques, and with virtually zero advertising, Lululemon has converted the most popular yoga teachers from Beverly Hills to Boston (and their students) into a devoted -- and self-propagating -- clientele.
It wasn't just the clientele that drank the Lululemon Kool-Aid, the "internal constitution" was targeted to employees - employees encouraged to embrace the Landmark Forum if professional development was to be in their yogic future.
But it's deceiving to bring up Lululemon in Sinek's presence. The fact is, Lululemon did not build it's "internal constitution" with radical honesty in mind. While it is an example of how corporate ideology was meant to blend with individual ideologies - spiritualities even - Lululemon has been far from honest when it comes to defining it's interests and beliefs.
The so-called consciousness raising, wellness promoting, ecologically literate image has somehow sustained itself despite numerous controversies. It takes very little digging to find out Lululemon not only used, but publicly promoted the use of sweatshops. The yoga enterprise also lied about the health benefits of certain products.
Stewart J. Lawrence of the Huffington Post explored how Lululemon has maintained it's image of social wellness and innovation. His findings lead to a not-so-surprising place. As long as Lululemon keeps it's investors happy, the company continues to thrive.
Occupy Wall Street? That's the new rallying cry of yoga progressives. And why not -- that's where you'll find Lululemon's investors, extolling the firm's phenomenal growth and record profits amid the nation's rampant joblessness and recession.
But that's why protesting yogis might want to take their critique of greed and capitalism one step further, and end their semi-official silence on a company that's more predator than partner, more pariah than pioneer. The demand for corporate responsibility, like most things in life, begins at home.
Lawrence writes about Lululemon in the context of a 2011 workplace murder. Brittany Norwood stabbed and bludgeoned her co-worker Jayna Murray an estimated 330 times over the course of 20 minutes.
How could two female "yogis" -- the Sanskrit word for devotees of the ancient Hindu practice -- arrive at a place where lethal force became an "option"? And what kind of workplace environment would fuel, or at least fail to ameliorate, such a dispute?
What can we take from the dramatic tale of Lululemon's corporate success? On one hand, the company appeared to do what Sinek called for, and it is hard to believe it could have risen to international ranks so quickly had it not. On the other hand, strange and tragic things may have happened as a direct result of Lululemon's cult-like work culture - be it based on fabricated truths. It is impossible to say the 2011 murder is directly connected to Lululemon's cult culture. But it is important to consider whether it might be, and why.
Can we blur the lines between work and life in the soulful way Sinek calls for without losing the kind of autonomy required for a healthy work-life balance? What examples of successful "internal constitutions" are out there?
Watch Simon Sinek's talk: If you don't understand people, you don't understand business
Images: 99%; Lululemon
Letter to the Editor:
I appreciated the mention of Landmark Education’s program in the article that referenced Douglas Atkin’s book, The Culting of Brands. The book is a great read about businesses with successful brands and large, committed followings. Context is everything, however, and it’s important to note that Atkin says a cult following is "the most coveted accessory in retail" and references Landmark along with other major companies like Mary Kay, Harley-Davidson and BMW. In fact, more than a decade ago, Time Magazine reported that Landmark was quickly becoming a global brand name with programs offered in more than 20 countries.
Deborah Beroset Miller
Director of Public Relations, Landmark Education