Manipulative Businesses: Secular Business Cults

AuthorBrian W. Kulik,Michelle Alarcon
Date01 June 2016
Published date01 June 2016
Manipulative Businesses:
Secular Business Cults
Many destructive business leaders drive their companies
into bankruptcy and dissolution, never to be heard from
again in the business press. However, it is useful to study
these organizations to prevent the same, or similar
destructive business from taking on, and destroying,
additional businesses. In this article, we describe one
type of organization that follows the model of religious
cults, which we call secular business cults. Building on
Padilla et al., we describe an SBC toxic triangle of (1)
Padilla et al.’s societal factors, (2) additional business fac-
tors, and (3) antisocial actors that set the stage for the
SBC’s emergence. We then describe the characteristics of
the SBC’s operations, such as an ultrastrong culture, for-
malized manipulation, manipulative hierarchical relation-
ships, competition, and operations efficiency tools, and
the frequent overcommunication of deceptive messages. It
is our hope that this unique perspective on organizations
will inspire research into an overlooked area of unethical
behavior in businesses today. In our Part II paper on the
Brian W. Kulik is an Associate Professor of Management at Angelo State University, San
Angelo, TX. Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Management at Hawaii Pacific Univer-
isty, Honolulu, HI. E-mail: Michelle Alarcon is an Associate Professor of
Management at Hawaii Pacific University, Honolulu, HI. E-mail:
C2016 Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University. Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.,
350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.
Business and Society Review 121:2 247–270
topic, we intend to extend the idea of SBCs to manipula-
tive businesses, which are essentially reorganized, well-
established and legally-complying revisions of SBCs, and
then to manipulative industries and societies.
Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski, Enron’s Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling,
and Andy Fastow, Sunbeam’s Al Dunlap, Madoff Investment
Securities’ Bernie Madoff, Worldcom’s Bernie Ebbers, Qwest’s
Joe Nacchio, Gelleon’s Raj Rajaratnam: The popular business press
is brimming with destructive business leaders who, once revered,
have since failed their companies catastrophically. One might argue
that these are examples of capitalism at its best, when unscrupu-
lous, “bad” leaders abuse the system, which reacts by rejecting
these bad actors like white blood cells fighting off a virus in the
human body. However, our capitalist system may not successfully
reject all of its destructive leaders. In fact, there may be an emerging
trend that today’s destructive leaders are learning to adapt, to trans-
form themselves into constructive, successful leaders that neverthe-
less lead businesses in unethical directions and manipulate its
members and constituents. As an executive MBA student once com-
mented to the first author, “Some [people] start [well] but later move
on to the ‘dark side’ and don’t want to [add value to their organiza-
tion] because they know they can get away with it.” What we need is
a careful articulation of the characteristics of the successful, but
unethical, business to develop measures to prevent their formation.
To prevent the formation of irresponsible businesses, we need to
understand the causes of their emergence. Growing academic atten-
tion has been paid to the dark side of management practice and
theory, no doubt stimulated by the dizzying array of corporate scan-
dals since Enron’s fall and dissolution, and revived by the attributed
causes of the so-called Great Recession. For example, the dark sides
of leadership (Conger 1990; Gini and Green 2012; Kellerman 2004;
Padilla et al. 2007), management development (Kamoche 2000),
organizational politics (Williams and Dutton 2000), agency theory
(Kulik 2005), positive organizational scholarship (Fineman 2006),
intrafirm competition (Kulik et al. 2008), capital markets (Clarke
and Newell 2013), manic behavior (Stein 2011), workplace spirituality

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