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The Culture Code and Charismatic Social Structures

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I spent a good deal of late 2019 and early 2020 thinking about Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code for various projects, none of which really accommodated a set of tangential thoughts the book sparked. So they’ve been sitting in a notebook waiting for the moment to be developed, which they signalled by waking me up in the middle of the night and demanding to be thought about. So apparently it’s time.

These thoughts were about some interesting resonances between the behaviours Coyle identifies as being common to successful groups and organisations, and those identified by Raymond Bradley in charismatic organisations. The comparison is interesting both for the overlaps and the differences.

As a quick refresher, Coyle’s three main elements to a sense of belonging are:

1. Build Safety
2. Share Vulnerability
3. Set Purpose

And Bradley’s three pre-requisites for a charismatic encounter are:

1. A cause
2. A crisis
3. A mythology that fosters belief in charismatic leadership

(Incidentally, that both writers organise their findings under three headings merely shows that they both have a grasp of the rhetorical principles that will make their ideas memorable.)

The primary point of connection at this headline level is the inclusion in both of some kind of guiding principle or goal that gives the group a sense of direction. Bradley specifies that the Cause is framed in abstract, moral terms. Coyle is less specific about the nature of the Purpose, but it’s clear that the point is to create a sense of meaningful action, to give people a sense that the group’s activity as a significance that goes beyond the group itself.

The other really interesting connection is one that Bradley develops at length through a detailed analysis of the relationships in the groups he studies, and which Coyle just mentions in passing in his introduction. They both identify a social structure in which all members of a group have access to all other members of the group. Cliques both undermine safety (Coyle) and prevent the euphoric merging in charismatic encounters that Bradley terms ‘Flux’.

But there are also some key differences. Coyle’s stories sometimes include a how a group weathered a crisis, but the sense of urgency of a cause galvanised into action isn’t essential to his formulation as it is to Bradley’s. Similarly, he has many stories of effective leadership, but they focus much more on how quiet wisdom fosters a safe environment and lowers personal barriers. In Bradley’s formulation, the key thing about leadership is the belief system in the group as a whole that invests their leaders with extraordinary powers.

These two differences bring into focus the difference the point that not all successful groups are charismatic, and not all charismatic groups are successful. Indeed, since Weber, the sociology of charisma has grappled with its inherent instability – the exceptionalist beliefs and the immediacy of a crisis to generate propulsive emotional energy both mitigate against a group’s durability.

Indeed, for all that euphoric merging into the whole is the primary reward for participants in a charismatic encounter, charismatic groups are not necessarily safe spaces. The ways that cults police behaviours and beliefs as a means to maintain the distinction between the elect and the damned can in some cases become highly abusive. Choirs, I like to think, are a fairly benign form of cult, but the propensity of choral directors to become controlling and bullying is well-documented.

So, this comparison helps us make clearer, more nuanced decisions about the kinds of groups we want to foster. A sense of purpose and an open structure in which all members have access to each other are going to be valuable in all cases. We can choose whether or not our circumstances warrant galvanising the cause into crusade mode to face a crisis. But if we do thereby raise the emotional temperature, we can remain mindful of whether we are generating a sense of belonging through creating a safe environment or through fear.

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