Science, Corporate Spanking and Pernicious Ideas

05/02/2006 12:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You might think that corporate decision-makers would investigate the tactics of consultants, coaches and other sellers of "team building" activities before purchasing their services. Before spending thousands of stockholder dollars on such events, you might think they would require proof--beyond mere anecdote--of results and at the very least, assurance that what was going to be done had not previously been widely discredited. But you would be wrong.

Arianna recently linked to the story of a woman who was literally spanked at the office as part of a corporate "team building" exercise, which also involved verbal abuse and people being made to eat baby food and wear diapers. Such tactics come from the failed "personal growth" seminars of the 70's like est--which have long since been shown to help no one but those who sell them.

Research on these confrontational and humiliating "large group awareness training" exercises shows that they do not lead to lasting positive change in most people and can seriously harm some. Millions of dollars in judgments have been paid out to people who suffered psychotic episodes or became so depressed as to require hospitalization following participation in them.

The ideology of these trainings is also pernicious. It teaches people that they control everything that happens to them--so that, for example, if their sales don't go up, it's their fault and if they lose their jobs, it's not due to globalization or rising oil prices, but due to their own personal failure. Obviously, this comforts those who survive within corporations--as it is skill, not luck that keeps them there and they need feel no guilt over the "losers" who are no longer employed.

As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her recent book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, numerous versions of such programs are sold both to jobseekers and corporations. In the case of jobhunters, they are presented as self-improvement training that will increase employability; for companies, they are pitched as team building.

The same failed ideas predominate in the "troubled teen" programs that I cover in my book, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids.

They sell because of a strange quirk of human psychology. When people have paid for something or bought into it psychologically, they tend not to want to admit that it didn't work. This is especially true when what you've paid for is humiliating and distressing. Also, when people's emotions are aroused, they tend to attach meaning to what occurs.

So, if you are spanked by your co-workers and feel humiliated, you might frame the experience as one that taught you something valuable about yourself. You might not want to repeat the experience, but you tell yourself you "grew" from it. Even if you behave exactly the same as you always did afterwards, you believe you have somehow progressed. And that illusion of progress is what marketers of these programs sell.

Thankfully, of course, not everyone buys into it--in this case, one victim is suing for $1.2 million. Let's hope this will make companies think twice before buying into this expensive and harmful quackery.