Beware of Cult-like Leadership Development Programs

I’ve been writing about wacky leadership development programs for a while now. These are silly, ineffective, but well intended programs designed to teach leadership using all kinds of “creative” training techniques. These programs, although a waste of a company’s money, are basically harmless and can even be fun.

What I’m about to describe isn’t harmless or fun. In fact, these programs can be dangerous. They can cause serious emotional and psychological damage, lower employee morale and productivity, and expose a company to costly lawsuits.

Do I have your attention? Good; then please read on. If you are a training manager, HR manager, training provider, or a buyer of training programs, it’s absolutely critical that you are aware of this.

The kind of leadership training, or personal development training I’m talking about has been described as “cult-like” and “new-age” training.

However, these are not how the programs are described when marketed. You’re more likely to see descriptors like:

– Personal Transformation,

– Transformational leadership,

Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT),

– Imagination and creativity,

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), and

– Self-help and self-actualization.

This stuff has been going on since the 1970’s, and despite the warnings, lawsuits, and damage, they continue to spawn and emerge led by an army of disciples. Some of the early versions were Krone training, Erhard seminars, est, the Forum, and Lifespring. Here’s a list of Large Group Awareness Training companies and their founders.

Today’s popular versions include Tony Robbins, PSI Seminars, the Landmark Forum, and Pecos River.

So what’s the problem? I’m no expert in the subject, so rather than repeat what’s already been said very well, I’ll defer to the following, and encourage you to read each one of these articles for a 30 minute tutorial on the subject:

1. Intruding into the Workplace, an excerpt from the book Cults In Our Midst, by Dr. Margaret Singer

2. The Siren Call of the Modern Pied Pipers, by Lawrence A. Pile

3. EEOC Notice N-915.022: Policy guidance on “new age” training programs which conflict with employees’ religious beliefs

4. The Skeptic’s Dictionary

5. And finally, for a more light-hearted view, read Dave Barry’s hysterical description of his own personal 12 hour experience, Altered States.

There are countless more websites, articles, and books on the topic. However, most trainers, HR pros, and managers I talk to, especially those new to their jobs, are completely unaware of the potential dangers.

Now, I’m not saying that all of these programs are dangerous or bad. It’s just that for corporate leadership development, we need to be aware of the potential problems and be informed. For example, if someone says they don’t want to participate in one of these problems, then you better not make it mandatory, or there could be serious civil rights consequences.

You also have to ask yourself if employers have any business intruding into their employee’s personal value and belief systems. There’s some moral and ethical considerations to think about. Personally, I don’t think there’s any need for this stuff in the workplace. Companies should be concerned with performance, skills, and behaviors. What goes on in an employee’s head or heart is none of their damn business.

We also need to be upfront with our employees and let them know what they are getting in to, so they can make their own informed choices.

This woman sure wasn’t too pleased when her husband returned from a PSI seminar and decided he no longer wanted to be with her or their children.

How do you know the training you are considering might be crossing the line into possible cult-like brainwashing?

Here are 10 warning signs to watch out for:

1. There is secrecy around the processes and techniques used. “It can’t be described, it has to be experienced” is what you’ll hear. “Don’t tell anyone about it, we don’t want you to spoil it for others”. Bull. Demand program objectives, outline, and a complete description.

2. Programs built on the ideas and/or leadership of one charismatic person. I’m always skeptical about any training program that’s referred to by someones name, i.e., “Tony Robbins training”, “Covey training”, “Kroning”, etc…

3. You have nagging doubts about the facilitators, staff or program content. Something just doesn’t “feel” right. They act a little too “enlightened”.

4. You get challenging, defensive or discounting responses to your questions about the program.

5. You get vague or over-general promises of participant success.

6. “Hard-sell” tactics. Pressure on graduates to recruit more participants. In corporations, individuals and departments are often pressured to “get with the program”, and seen as resistant if they choose not to participate.

7. An unfamiliar set of jargon are used to describe key concepts of the programs.

8. Program facilitators use physical and emotional techniques to get people to “open up and share” (i.e., break them down and humiliate them).

9. It’s impossible to measure and evaluate the outcomes.

10. Any of the following techniques are used: fire walking, chanting, hypnosis, meditation, massage, yoga, biofeedback, bizarre relaxation techniques, mind control, visualization, overly aggressive “attack” confrontational techniques, or excessive hugging and crying.

Any one of these by themselves is probably harmless, but if you pick up on three of more, then buyer beware.