Mercenary mindbogglers

The Times, UK/July 23, 1992

By Ray Clancy

There are management training courses and management training courses. The Times recently enrolled one of its reporters, Ray Clancy, on a course run by disciples of Werner Erhard, a pioneer of high-pressure personality manipulation more commonly associated with new religious cults. She emerged intact, as readers will have noted from her spirited reporting of the experience.

But she saw people undergoing humiliation and other kinds of emotional trauma that have no place in respectable management practice or sound psychological counselling. The training sessions were a potent brew of arcane philosophy, smooth salesmanship, amateur psychiatry, psychological brow-beating and New Age mysticism. Such techniques prey upon human suggestibility and are designed to induce dependency, confusion and self-doubt.

There is a growing body of evidence that manipulative pressure like this, without proper checks and safeguards, can lead to long-term stress, nervous breakdown or clinical depression. Even when a course appears to have ``succeeded'', from the point of view of the course organisers, family and friends are often disturbed by mysterious changes in an individual's personality. Not surprisingly, many psychiatrists are alarmed by the damage such training can do.

Some courses are open at a price to private individuals, who can find them addictive. Once people have been convinced by a plausible line of patter that their personality suffers from some unspecified psychological flaw, they can then be persuaded that a complete cure will require a further course. They also come under pressure to bring friends and relations with them next time (for additional fat fees).

Even reputable companies use such courses. Employees must attend under compulsion and are thus under pressure to co-operate with their course supervisors. To force employees to expose themselves to a serious risk of psychological harm, perhaps on the understanding that they might lose their jobs if they protest, is an abuse of power by an employer. Sooner or later one of them is going to be liable for an award of heavy damages, just as if employment had resulted in physical rather than mental injury. Until then, there is no obvious legal way of curtailing such abuses. Nonetheless publicity, such as that in The Times this week, can be a highly effective remedy.

Yet managers still need training, and British managers are becoming aware they need it more than most. This explains the success of bona fide training course organisers, whether freelance or working for one company, who can genuinely improve the happiness and efficiency of employees while benefiting company profits. Such courses use no coercion and invade no private space, while respecting the individuality and dignity of those who attend.

Personnel managers, nowadays often renamed human-resource managers, have a clear professional duty to weed out high-pressure operators. They should insist on inspecting all course literature, satisfying themselves that there are no hidden agendas and that no unusual behaviour is demanded from those taking part. They should require convincing evidence of professional training and proper qualifications from those who run the courses. They should listen carefully to feedback from those who have attended such courses, and attend them themselves where practicable. They should be sceptical of exaggerated claims for what such courses can achieve. Above all employers must consult their employees, and make their participation truly voluntary.

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