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Steve Hassan joined the Unification Church – better known as the Moonies – when he was 19, and was cited as a model member by its founder, Reverend Sun Myung Moon. He was intensely dedicated and loyal, sleeping only three to four hours a night as he tried to fulfill all that was asked of him, when he feel asleep at the wheel of a Moonie van and drove into a tractor trailer, nearly killing himself.

He called his sister from his hospital bed, and his family decided to "deprogram" him, wiping away the emotional and mental ties he had built to the organization. He went along with them, since he knew he wasn't brainwashed and wanted to prove to them that his efforts on behalf of the church were worthwhile. He realized eventually, however, he has wrong, and has devoted the past 36 years to helping others to escape cults.

Do you need similar help? You may not be a member of a cult, but you may be getting along without much sleep as you subordinate yourself to a workplace and leadership that has many cultish aspects. You may believe, like he did, that others who question your commitment and your endless work hours are naive, not understanding how important your effort in the workplace is for the wider world.

Mr. Hassan says it helps to steer away from the loaded word "cult" when talking about the workplace and just focus on unhealthy, authoritarian organizations.

"Healthy organizations treat people with respect, and pay people for working overtime. Unhealthy organizations don't. Unhealthy organizations make people feel if they don't fit there they will never work again. Given the economy, people worry and put up with a lot they wouldn't ordinarily" he says in an interview, agreeing to apply his knowledge on hard-edged cults to unhealthy, cultish workplaces.

Cultish organizations are controlling in four ways that he sums up in a "BITE" model, an acronym derived from the first letters of those elements of control:

  • Behaviour control: They regulate the individual’s physical reality, including where he lives, what he wears, and how much sleep he gets. Individualism is discouraged, while group-think prevails. The individual must make major time commitments for indoctrination sessions and group rituals; be obedient; and accept having little time for leisure, entertainment, or vacations.
  • Information control: Leaders decide who needs to know what. Information is distorted or held back, to serve the needs of the organization. Access to outside information is discouraged, such as critical analyses of the organization or meeting with disgruntled former members.
  • Thought control: The member is expected to accept the organizational doctrine as the truth. Only “good” thoughts are encouraged, and “negative” thoughts are shut down. Questions that are critical of leaders are not seen as legitimate.
  • Emotion control: Fear abounds over thinking for yourself. Members are indoctrinated into having a phobia about leaving the group or questioning the leader. Those who leave are shunned, and the belief grows that there is no legitimate reason for leaving.

There's a lot in the BITE model that echoes our workplaces. Mr. Hassan notes leaders of cults are messianic, and we cheer charismatic corporate leaders who have vision and passion. The CEO might have a narcissistic personality, or lack empathy, as is often the case with a cult leader. We head off on HR retreats to bond and build solidarity.

"Very quickly you can create a culture – emphasis on cult in the culture – where to get ahead you must work extra hours and never criticize the leader. The company starts to lose its ethical compass," he says.

Most people who find themselves in a cultish work environment don't need their sisters to find them a deprogrammer, he says. After all, people in business aren't in a jungle, like the followers of Jonestown massacre leader Jim Jones, where it's hard to find outside information and escape. We have access to the Internet, and many outside influences.

If a loved one is in a work situation that scares you, he suggests not being confrontational. Don't argue. Don't call them names. The cult bond helps them to thwart attacks from outside. Adopt a posture of concern. Ask them to tell you about what the organization is like. Nudge them to be specific about their everyday situation.

"The key is rapport and trust building. Ask questions from a loving place," he says.

Ask them if they are happy. If they insist they are but look miserable, give them feedback about what you're seeing. Ask them if they can question leaders at work. Share information on sleep deprivation if that seems an issue.

And remember, he says, for yourself and others, those cults go after the brightest and the best. They gain influence when those individuals are vulnerable – out of work, or just graduating for school, or moving to a new city, or recently divorced.

"It isn't just weak people. Very strong-minded people can be influenced," he says.

Get a hold of yourself – and watch out for your friends – before you hit the tractor trailer.

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