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Business and the New Age Movement

Business and the New Age Movement: A Critical Perspective

This is a modified draft of an article, "Beware of `New Age’ Solutions to Age Old Problems," published in Business and Society Review, 1989, Number 69, pp. 39-42.

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Coming of age in the 60s, pursuing a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology in the 70s, and studying cults in the 80s have certainly exposed me to what is today commonly called the "new age movement," or NAM for short. The NAM defies precise definition because it is not so much an organized movement, though organized new age groups exist, but an indistinctly articulated world view that attracts all kinds of people who adhere to the new age world view with varying degrees of "purity." Although the NAM first began affecting psychology, education, and religion nearly 20 years ago, it has only recently gained attention in the business world, largely as a result of articles appearing in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and other periodicals.

What is the new age movement? How has it affected the business world? How should business respond? I hope that the reflections that follow will help others better understand this important subject.

What is the New Age Movement?

The NAM includes four overlapping but distinct "streams": occult, intellectual, lifestyle, and transformational trainings. The occult stream is fascinated by shamanism, crystals, "pyramid power," and channeling, a modern form of mediumship in which especially "sensitive" persons become "channels" for supposedly wise spirits from ancient times or even other planets. New age intellectuals apply new age thought to traditional intellectual problems, such as the nature of mind, and produce books such as The Tao of Physics. The lifestyle stream focuses on concepts such as holistic health, alternative shelter, or communal living arrangements. Transformational trainings are highly organized programs that purport to "transform" individuals and organizations by helping them "experience" new ways of viewing the world. This essay focuses on the latter stream, which typifies the new age spirit and is the aspect of the NAM that has most profoundly affected the business world.

New age transformational trainings grew out of the human potential movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which popularized sensitivity and encounter groups. William Penn Patrick's Leadership Dynamics Institute (LDI), one of the first of the transformational trainings, carried human potential concepts to extremes that led to the program's demise in a tangle of lawsuits. LDI, which claimed to make better leaders and executives, subjected participants to a range of abusive practices, including beatings, food and sleep deprivation, jamming into coffins, and degrading sexual acts. Many existing transformational trainings have at least been indirectly influenced by LDI.

These trainings, of which there are dozens if not hundreds, bring together for varying periods of time, but rarely less than a day, several dozen to several hundred individuals, each usually paying $300 or more. The trainings organizers are customarily ambiguous, even secret, about their content, frequently insisting that they can only be "experienced," not described. Their professed outcomes are equally vague and immeasurable, though almost always grandiose, e.g., "transforming corporate culture." Their actual content includes not only standard human potential exercises, but also a smorgasbord of sometimes assaultive or hypnotic group exercises designed to produce intense emotional reactions and even altered states of consciousness. Some participants hate the trainings, and accuse them of being manipulative or stupid. Some become virtual "devotees" who volunteer to promote or otherwise help the training organizations and who take their seemingly never-ending advanced seminars. Many participants appear to evaluate the experience favorably, more or less continuing with their lives as before. But some, perhaps as many as 15%, appear to be psychologically harmed. Suits for emotional damages are not uncommon.

Unlike traditional training programs, which rest on principles of learning tested in the psychological laboratory and which attempt to teach specific, measurable skills, transformational trainings are so vague and their goals so resistant to scientific evaluation that their effectiveness is virtually undeterminable. Some critics contend that the only thing at which these programs excel is creating positive attitudes toward themselves.

If these critics are correct, and if, as was implied above, these trainings cause graduates to believe that one cannot judge a training without taking it (One is not qualified to say "no" until one says "yes."), interesting marketing consequences would ensue. Initially, one would expect the trainings to sell themselves to individuals, because businesses would be skeptical. When a critical mass of enthusiasts is reached, however, the trainings would be able to overcome hard-nosed business skepticism because many executives would have taken the trainings in their private lives. This, according to critics, is precisely what has happened. The business world has been infected by a "psychological virus."

If these trainings have as little substance as their critics contend, how could educated, intelligent executives become so enamored with them? To answer this question, we must first examine how the new age world view came into being.

The NAM is a logical derivative of two widely held beliefs of the 60s. The first is the belief that the world, the "old age," is so far out of whack that nothing short of radical transformation can fix it. The second is the belief that the purpose of life is to "feel good," as opposed to, for example, to do what is right (which often brings pain and demands self-denial).

The former belief sprang from the 60s political activism. The latter issued from the "turn-on-tune-in-drop-out" mentality of the hippie movement. When the hope of "revolution" died, many persons concluded that the "old age" couldn't be transformed without a radical shift in the individual citizen's consciousness. Although not all of these spiritual revolutionaries and their sympathizers bought into the "feel-good" dogma of the 60s, the millions who did embarked on a road of feel-good revolution. Their mission was to destroy and to feel good at the same time.

This mission demanded the discovery of techniques for changing individuals' consciousness in order to make them view personal and social transformation as desirable or even inevitable. Psychological experimentation became almost a way of life as budding new agers hooked up with the human potential movement. The feel-good dogma, however, required that the psychological experimenting result in "good feelings." But since even drugs can't produce durable "good feelings," the psychological experiments had to be so constructed that "good feelings" would always follow "bad feelings." Hence, manipulated "catharsis" became standard operating procedure. Furthermore, because being wrong usually made participants feel badly, forms of thinking had to be adopted that would enable adherents to interpret events so as to always "be right." What's true for you is true for you, what's true for me is true for me became the new age epistemology. Mystical, especially eastern, philosophies were embraced because they supported the need to equate perception with reality. Despite paeans to "doing your own thing," agreement was the only way to "confirm" one's reality. As a result, interpersonal conflict was either neutralized through manipulation or redefined as a "growth experience," "agreement at a deeper level," "just semantics," or "different realities." In some cases, say critics, a deceptive, smiling totalitarianism emerged so that leaders could confirm their "realities" through group agreement.

Unfortunately, most people stubbornly refuse to cooperate (because, for example, they reject the notion that the purpose of life is to feel good). In order to diminish the threatening discomfort their criticism elicits in new agers, these recalcitrant masses have to be liberated from their "old-age ignorance," their consciousness has to be "raised." Thus, the destroy-and-feel-good movement has had to become adept at psychological manipulation on a grand scale. Transformational trainings are the primary vehicle of this messianic, feel-good manipulation.

Not everyone imbibes the new age spirit by following the path that began in the 60s. Since personal distress commonly makes people cynical about the world and hungry for "good feelings," distressed individuals who came of age after the 60s or who may not have been caught up in its turmoil can easily get recruited by sophisticated transformational trainings promising a "new you," or whatever. And since executives, like everyone else, can get stressed out, they too can be prospective recruits for transformational trainings. The most enthusiastic of these transmit the "psychological virus" to their organizations. Given that probably more than 1,000,000 persons have taken transformational trainings, it is no wonder that new age enthusiasts are affecting business.

How Has The New Age Movement Affected Business?

Transformational trainings say that they benefit the business community. But, as noted earlier, their alleged benefits are usually vague, difficult to measure, and grandiose: "transform corporate culture," "release untapped creativity," "get it," "provide new ways of seeing problems." To my knowledge, no rigorously conducted studies involving control groups indicate that transformational trainings improve fundamental variables such as productivity or profit. Their main effect appears to be to alter attitudes, especially attitudes toward the training. This effect, however, is of dubious utility. I could, for example, devise a training program, which consisted of watching football games followed by group exercises designed to help employees understand the importance of "teamwork." Participants would probably love getting paid to watch football games, but would their positive attitudes toward the "training" really result in behavioral changes that improved productivity or profit? I doubt it.

Even if, contrary to the critics' contentions, some transformational trainings did produce tangible benefits, these benefits would have to be weighed against the harms that the trainings allegedly cause. Numerous civil suits have been filed to recover damages for emotional distress allegedly caused by transformational trainings. Businesses that require attendance at trainings that cause such damages run a risk of being entangled in litigation.

In addition to the risk of psychological damage and litigation, transformational trainings can also breed dissension, lower employee morale, and waste human resources. Pacific Bell, which spent $65 million dollars on a new age training program, got bogged down in a controversy that enraged many employees, rate payers, and the California Public Utilities Commission, which forbade the company to pass the cost of the training to consumers.

Some critics contend that even those not visibly damaged by new age transformational trainings unwittingly adopt thinking patterns, which denigrate rationality and scientific method. To the extent that training graduates imbibe the notion that perception is reality, their decision-making processes come to lean heavily on subjective, emotional considerations. And because their evaluations of business decisions are also subjective -- "success" being in the eye of the evaluator -- the problem is compounded. Contrary to new age dogma, wise decisions do not always "feel good."

The use of transformational trainings also raises ethical questions for business. The affinity such trainings have for eastern mysticism has motivated a number of employees to file civil suits alleging religious discrimination on the part of their employers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has even published guidelines on the subject, which comes under the Civil Rights Act of 1964--Title VII. Business has barely begun to examine its responsibilities in this area.

Critics also maintain that transformational trainings, which attempt to alter fundamental philosophical assumptions, may, when successful in that goal, cause effects that go far beyond the employee's performance at work. These effects can include marital conflict and changes in political, as well as religious, beliefs. Proponents of transformational trainings often applaud such changes, for they consider the corporation to be an instrument of social change. But certainly not everyone accepts this view of the corporation's role. Nor does everyone believe that the new thinking patterns are beneficial.

How Should Business Respond to the New Age Movement?

In today's sophisticated world economy, American business faces tougher and tougher competition. Understandably, executives want to find ways of teaching people to be more effective on their jobs. Transformational trainings cater to this need. Whether or not they fulfill it is open to debate.

In their search to improve employee performance, executives should be careful not to confuse the behavioral and physical sciences. The physical sciences astound us daily with new discoveries, and regularly provide genuine "breakthroughs." The behavioral sciences simply can't do that. Indeed, the notion of a "psychotechnology," a word bandied about in the new age, is premature at best and nonsensical at worst. Human beings cannot be "upgraded" like computer hardware. They are far more complex. Neither can they be "transformed" by psychological alchemists. Substantial psychological change does not come easily, even when people seek to change, as in psychotherapy.

Executives should not accept new age claims at face value, no matter how sophisticated the packaging. The radical approaches that these trainings tout should be viewed skeptically if for no other reason than that their "newness" implies that they do not build on a body of behavioral research, as do traditional trainings. To the extent the business community believes new age trainings may have value, it should support rigorous scientific evaluative research of the trainings.

Everyone likes a magic show. And everyone likes a quick solution to his problems -- even executives answerable to the "bottom line." If critics are correct, new age transformational trainings may be no more useful than a magic show. Indeed, they may be downright dangerous. At least a magic show doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is. We leave it feeling entertained; we don't leave it believing that magic really exists.

Jack Gordon, writing in the September 1987 issue of Training, wrote: "There is an implicit belief held by many in the HRD [human resource and development] profession (and not just those in the "new Age" fringe) that their job is nothing less than to self-actualize the American work force...What, exactly, are our qualifications for this rather daunting task?"

I believe that Mr. Gordon has gotten to the heart of the matter. Those of us who work with human beings should be more humble. We should realize that in the day-to-day world of practical concerns, small successes are better than gigantic failures, no matter how stirring the musical accompaniment. In the final analysis, teaching an employee skills that enable him to make two widgets where he had formerly made one is more useful than trumpeting "be all that you can be."

The new age "virus" infected the educational system many years ago. After a disillusioning pursuit of grandiose and airy quick-fixes, the educational system is finally getting "back to basics." Business should follow suit.