Too Much Kool-Aid


Question: Everyone at my workplace has a glazed look in their eye and they repeat industry slogans with a fervor that’s truly frightening. I mean, I believe in our mission, too, but I feel like I’ve joined a cult.

That’s because you have. Modern companies expect you to be a total fan-boy of whatever it is they’re selling. Even beyond that, they want you to feel that their mission is the most compelling thing on the planet. They seek to foster a sense of loyalty so intense that you’d literally rather die than leave on your own. This loyalty, however, is often one-sided. That’s what “at-will employment” means.

Drinking the Kool-Aid refers to the Jim Jones mass murder-suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. Jones was a cult leader for several decades before he went off the deep end and forced all his followers to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide poison. There’s a really thoughtful account of this in Marc Galanter’s book “Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion“.

Until that point, Kool-Aid had been just another sugary drink, although “Magic Kool-Aid” was a relic of the 60s when it was still OK to slip LSD into the punch bowl at a party. (I also remember a brief period when Vodka and Kool-Aid with ice was the cheapest summer drunk you could imagine.) Now, anytime someone says “drink the Kool-Aid”, chances are they are referring to corporate pressure to believe some official dogma, no matter how crazy it is – and for everyone to repeat it out loud, in public.

The organizations who do it best are often high-tech companies. Underneath it all, the founders’ mission is usually to grow as fast as possible and then cash in before the stock price tanks or they get bought up and gutted by another vulture capitalist.

Unlike the gray, dystopic scenarios of totalitarian states satirized in George Orwell’s classic book 1984, the modern corporate version of a cult doesn’t seek to create a climate of fear, at least not overtly. Instead, they take people’s natural idealism and tweak it using the same methods as other charismatic groups: cult of personality, messianic fervor, capricious favoritism, and nonstop work schedules that leave little time or energy for anything outside of work.

Then, they feed you lots of stimulants and sugar, and re-decorate the office in bright, cheery colors. They tell you how special you are for being part of their valued workforce. They really make you feel like their mission is the most important thing ever. And… sometimes it really is. That only makes all the Kool-Aid even harder to bear!

A lot of executives act as if declaring something is the same as reality. In Orwell’s book, the Ministry of Peace is in charge of war-mongering, and the Ministry of Plenty takes care of rationing. This isn’t all that different from re-naming your HR department to “People Empowerment” while you strip local managers of authority.

When everyone’s in a weakened physical and mental state, no one will object when corporate declarations are not the same as what they’re personally experiencing. They’ll just go along with it till they day comes when they get laid off.

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