The Causey Consulting Podcast

Cult-Like Tactics Used in Corporate America & Why "Self-Help" Often Doesn't Help

December 10, 2020 Sara Causey Episode 56
The Causey Consulting Podcast
Cult-Like Tactics Used in Corporate America & Why "Self-Help" Often Doesn't Help
Show Notes Transcript

Recently, I watched the STARZ docuseries Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult. I learned many things about how NXIVM operated that I hadn't heard before. Fair warning: due to the nature of this discussion, this episode has an explicit warning and is not suitable for children. Also, if you believe any of it could be triggering for you, please skip this episode.

Key topics:

✔️ The profile of "Vanguard Week" reminded me so much of Corporate America that it hurt. Relay races, tug-of-war, volleyball games, songs and dances and tributes to the owner... yuck. But it's all being done to tire you out so that you don't ask questions about what's actually going on.
✔️ NXIVM operated a business/self-improvement course called Executive Success Program as a gateway to the rest of it. Sounds awfully benign and harmless, doesn't it? We can't afford to be naïve about the business world and the way it operates any longer.
✔️ Why did the leaders of NXIVM use the self-help world? Well, let's face it: if most of these self-help and self-improvement programs worked, people would be happier, more successful, and they wouldn't keep buying more and more of the products.
✔️ Always trust your gut. If you feel unsafe, don't try to talk yourself out of your own gut instincts or sixth sense. Always use caveat emptor. Do your own research and homework. Think for yourself and don't follow the herd just to conform.  

Need more? Email me:


Hello, hello and welcome to today's episode of the Causey Consulting Podcast. I'm your host Sara Causey and I'm also the owner of Causey Consulting, which you can find online anytime at Recently, I watched the Starz docuseries Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult. And fair warning, I am going to put an explicit label on this particular episode. This is not something that you want to listen to with your children in the room. If you feel like this subject matter is something that could be triggering for you, turn this episode off! Because I am going to put an explicit label on this episode anyway just due to the content and the subject matter, I'm also going to speak more freely and use more 4 letter adult words like I normally would in regular conversation. I typically get keep it pretty G rated and don't use wordy dirds, but I will in this episode, since it's going to be rated explicit anyway. So with this docuseries, I couldn't it was the type of thing that I just I couldn't stop watching. And just when I thought it couldn't possibly get any stranger or any more disturbing, it always did. The documentary focuses a lot on the brainwashing, the human trafficking, sex trafficking, adults being held down and branded with a cauterizing tool. I mean, it's, if you've only just sort of heard the general idea of like, okay, there was this guy named Keith, and there was this thing called the NXIVM cult and I think maybe he had like a commune of sex slaves or something. Like when you really start learning about the ins and outs of what happened at this place on a regular basis, it's nightmare fuel truly. The documentary, rightfully so, focuses on human rights, preventing sex trafficking, human trafficking, exploitation, what to what to do if you think someone you know, is involved in a situation like this, how people who have escaped from those situations, can pay it forward and help educate the public, and rightfully so. There are two particular things that I want to hone in on in this episode. The first one is cult-like practices used by businesses and then passed off as "corporate culture" or "team building activities." And the second is why I believe the founders of this organization used the self-help industry as a gateway. So tackling this first point, I did not know about the drills, and so-called accountability exercises that people in NXIVM would have to do. So they might have to get up at 3am. And send a text message to whoever their leader was their group leader, their squad leader, whatever you want to call it, just to acknowledge that they got up, or they have to take a cold shower, or they'd have to stand outside in the snow for a prescribed amount of time. A lot of them were on very low, restrictive diets. I'm talking like bare bones, starvation rations, and they would have to like take pictures of what they were eating and send it to their leader or do a calorie count and send it to their leader asked permission to eat asked permission to sleep log when they were waking up in the morning and when they were going to bed. All of that in and of itself is bizarre, then you add to it, that they had to participate in this activity each year called Vanguard Week. So evidently, Keith Raniere, the guy that was like the the hub of all of this called himself the Vanguard and wanted the members of this organization to also call him the Vanguard. And so Vanguard Week was a week of festivals and activities that lead up to his birthday. And on his birthday, everybody in this organization would have to pay tribute to him. They would stand up and say, give give speeches about how wonderful he was and how much you change their lives. They'd have to sing songs and perform skits and India Oxenberg tells a lot of the story in this documentary and she said, You know, there were people who would rehearse their skits and their songs for Vanguard Week for months in advance, and they were like obsessed with making sure that they got it right before they performed it for Keith. And I felt a chill run up my spine when she said that because it triggered for me some really unpleasant memories of a company that I worked for. Obviously, I'm not going to name drop here, but I worked for a company where that was the expectation. It didn't coincide with anyone's birthday-- it wasn't quite so like obvious Roman Emperor as that-- but it was like, there was this prescribed time out of the year where you knew that you damn well better participate and shut your mouth and do what you were told. You had to sing songs, you had to perform skits. It served no purpose for the business whatsoever. It was strictly done like a boot to the back of your neck. 'The owners expect that you're going to do this. And if you don't, then you're going to be on the company shitlist.' I'm not gonna outright fire you for not wanting to sing songs and perform a skit. But you just knew and understood that if you didn't do it, you would be branded as not a team player and the first opportunity, they got to shove you out the door, you sneezed in the wrong direction, or you showed up five minutes late because of traffic. So we're gonna fire you ostensibly for that. But really, it's because you just didn't want to participate in a lot of asinine, bullshit activities, like singing and dancing in front of the owners. I mean, really, how degrading. And then the documentary, they interviewed a cult researcher named Rick Alan Ross and one of the things that he said was, these activities are done very deliberately. And they're called "high arousal technique." So the idea is like, you've got this collection of people and a lot of them are not sleeping enough, they're exhausted, they're not eating properly, either. So they're very hungry and probably malnourished on top of it, then you're shuttling them back and forth between all of these activities, they've got to rehearse, and they've got to sing, and they've got to dance. And then you're also holding athletic competition, so then someone's got to play tug of war, and then you're gonna play volleyball, and then you're gonna have a relay race, like they're tired. So doing all of these high arousal, technique, activities, you wear them out, you keep them busy, you get them in an athletic competition, so they get a boost of adrenaline, and they're focused on winning the relay race or winning the volleyball game. And they don't ask questions, you know, when you're when you're starving, and all you're thinking about is food or you're exhausted, and you just want to curl up and go to bed for 24 hours straight, you're not questioning authority, you're not looking around going, What in the hell? Why are we doing any of this seems like the most bizarre bullshit I've ever seen. You're not doing that because you're worn out. In 1944, there were a group of young men who were conscientious objectors, they did not want to physically go to war, and do combat but wanted to somehow serve the country in a different way. And so they were put on these, like, semi starvation rations. And one of the things that that participants reported was that they thought about food constantly. When they slept at night, they dreamed about food. If they were watching a movie, and characters started cooking or eating, that was all they could focus on. The men would look at pictures of food in cookbooks, the same way that another man might look through the pages of Playboy magazine, it was like food had become this all-consuming thought. And I remembered that experiment as I was listening to this documentary about NXIVM because it's like, well, of course, if you if you're if you're starving, if your body is on these, these, like almost not even basic subsistence rations, and then you're exercising on top of that, and you're sleep deprived, of course, you're not going to be questioning authority of course, you're not going to be thinking as clearly and as rationally as you should be. Because your basic human survival necessities are not even being met. I really find it disgusting when Corporate America takes cult-like techniques and gives you essentially this sort of pat you on the head to say "well, you know we're doing this for your own good. You need to do this for team building you need to do this so that we can have a good company culture. you should want to go hang out that happy hour." I guess now that everybody's you know on COVID lockdown again, it's "Well, you should want to participate in virtual happy hour. you should want to be filmed every day and should be totally comfortable with the idea of your boss knowing what every room in your house looks like." And it's like, Says who? On what grounds do we need to be that connected by video or do you need to be that involved in my private life all the time? In my mind, one of the best team building activities there can ever be is just good old-fashioned kindness. Don't be assholes to each other. You know, if you work in in any kind

of sales driven company:

don't stab each other in the back, don't steal accounts, don't steal clients; be cool to one another. That's one of the most fundamental ways to build a good team. To me it does not matter how many happy hours you have, how many-- I'm not trying to think of some of the idiot activities I've seen-- you know, sack races and pin the tail on the donkey and tug of war. It doesn't matter how many of those juvenile activities that you force your staff to do. If you have an office full of backstabbers and lying assholes, it's not gonna work. One of the most prevalent excuses that you hear for this type of conduct is the executive team or the owner of the company or some moron sales manager, whoever it is, that's really spearheading all of these cultish activities will say, well, the staff members like it, they wouldn't participate if they didn't really want to, they wouldn't work here if they didn't want to be involved in these forced social activities. So they must like what they're doing, or at least be able to tolerate it. And I would say, there's a very fast and simple way to test your theory: make these activities voluntary. And I mean, truly voluntary, not "well, you don't have to go wink, wink, but just know that if you don't participate, we're going to brand you with a scarlet 'not a team player' and fire you or lay you off or give you a pay cut, the first opportunity that we get..." No, it needs to really, truly be voluntary, where there's no repercussions, and no retaliation involved. If you say"no, I'm not ever going to go to a happy hour, or I'm not ever going to participate in a sack race, I'm not going to go to the company holiday party" or whatever it really and truly should be optional. And then stand back and see how many people actually show up or how many people actually participate. The thing is, you'll always have at least a few, you'll have some people who probably don't really want to do it, but they're just that committed to brown-nosing the boss, they've decided that the best way to move up in the company is not in any merit or performance based way, but instead by being an ass-kisser, so they're going to show up because they want to curry favor with the boss or with the company owner. And the other set of people are just that highly extroverted, you know, in the same way that I'm pretty far on the introvert scale. I love solitude. I live a sort of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson life in the woods and avoid people type of lifestyle. And that's how I like it. There's people on the opposite end of the spectrum that they cannot stand solitude. I don't know if they're just that uncomfortable in their own skin or what the issue is, but they want to be around people all the time. And they absolutely love being the center of attention. It reminds me of this funny scene in Quo Vadis. If you've never seen the movie, like Peter Ustinov plays the Emperor Nero as kind of a giant overgrown, spoiled baby. And there's this scene where one of the members of his court is like, "Well, why don't you stand up and sing a song for us?" And he says, "oh, oh, I'm just woefully unprepared." But then he conveniently has his harp literally right beside him and immediately bursts into song. You're always gonna have some of those extreme extroverts and no offense, but I'm just speaking my mind here, ego maniacs that want to be the center of attention. They will happily stand up like fat, spoiled Nero and be like, "Oh, I'm just woefully unprepared to sing for you" and then immediately burst into song. So you'll have some people that show up to these corporate cult events. But I would hazard a guess that probably somewhere between 75 and 90% of your workforce, depending upon what industry you're in, and what what the size of the company is-- probably 75 to 90% won't. They don't want it. It's something that is done by owners who are or executives, whomever, people who are insecure, and they want that control. There is some defect in their personality that tells them I need to have this power. I want to be able to play my fiddle and watch all of the mice dance for me! And the other thing is for some people, they're just lonely and and it's sad to say but it's like they have to buy friendship, they have to buy social activities. It's like 'if I asked my friends to go out to happy hour, none of them will show up. But if I force my employees to do it, then they have to!' *insert evil devil laugh here.* Well, don't. Your employees are there to do a job for you, and getting rid of somebody because they didn't want to buddy up and be palsy-walsy with you, or do a bunch of bullshit extrovert activities they shouldn't have to do is ridiculous. I mean, if you think about putting it in in very clear terms and saying it out loud, listen to how ludicrous the sounds. Bob was a great employee, he always went above and beyond his sales quota. We never had customer service issues from him, no one ever complained, never showed up late, didn't string in an hour past time smelling of booze, he was a great employee. But he didn't want to go to virtual happy hour. He didn't want to do sack races with us on the weekends. And so we just fired Bob, we felt like we had to get rid of him because he just wasn't enough of a team player. It's like saying, Bob was a great student, but we had to kick him out of school because he didn't want to play on the slide and the teeter-totter with us at recess. Like when you stop and say it out loud, like that you realize how petty and juvenile it is. My second point is something that was touched on very briefly, in the docuseries on Starz, but not really explored very much. And I want to sort of stick my finger in that wound and open it up, because I think it's something important for us to talk about. So my second point is why I believe the founders of that organization used the self-help industry as their gateway. Before watching the docuseries, I did not know exactly how people found their way in. I thought it was kind of like other other cults or other organizations where you learn a secret code, and you just show up somewhere, or somebody invites you. And it's something that never gets exposed to the public. But they had this program that they called Executive Success Program. And that is such a benign and innocuous name. It's, here's the thing, kids, it's not like these places, set a sign outside the door that says, hey, do you want to come in and join a cult today? Hey, after you have been with us for about six months, we're gonna brand you with a cauterizing tool and have you start making revenge porn photos of yourself. Is that cool with you? No, that's not how they do it. I just want you to imagine for a second if you went to a seminar or a workshop, that, you know, your intention was, I want to learn how to be a better negotiator. I want to feel more confident at work. I'm in a corporate job now, I don't like it, and I want to get the confidence and the know-how to become an entrepreneur. And then you find out later that you unknowingly gave money, you spent money to go to what you thought was just an innocuous business seminar, but it you unknowingly helped to finance a sex cult. Or maybe that was your gateway in and you look back at things that were just like how you were being bread-crumbed like, something that seems so logical led to something that was just completely nucking futs. Like I mean, think about how terrible it is to go in somewhere with a sense of innocence, and then find out that there was way more of a dark underbelly than you ever could have imagined. It reminds me of The Exorcist, like, here's this lonely little girl who has a deadbeat dad that won't even bother to telephone her on her birthday. Her mom is a self-absorbed actress that's all about furthering her career and she's not home very much. So the little girl decides to use a Ouija board to strike up a friendship with somebody just so she won't be so lonely anymore and it turns out, she's talking to actual literal Satan. I mean, to me, it's the same sort of

thing here:

you begin a process that seems so innocent and so benign, and then it turns out to be something way, way darker than you ever could have imagined. How terrible. The self-help industry or self-improvement industry, if you'd prefer to call it that, is worth billions, not millions, but billions with a B. And it's not surprising to me getting over that sort of initial shock of like, Oh my god, can you imagine these poor people that went to a business seminar, and then found out later what was really going on? Like, how awful must that be? It's not a surprise to me, that they used sort of self-improvement and self-help as an entryway for people because it is a huge industry. And the barriers to entry are very low, and it's by and large, not regulated. And I want to stop and make a point here because I'm very libertarian about most things. I'm more of a proponent of caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. I'm not the type of person that says well, there ought to be a law. You know, obviously, there are laws against sex trafficking and human trafficking. rightfully so. But when it comes to being told what books you can and cannot read, what videos on YouTube you can and cannot watch that, in my opinion, is not big brother government's job to censor things for you and tell you what kind of content you can and cannot consume. You need to be smart, and you need to be careful and for God's sakes do your research. I think it was in the first episode of the docuseries, they talked about how Keith had watched videos of Tony Robbins and he had watched the intro videos for Amway and how they did their multi-level marketing structure. And it started to brew in his brain like, okay, I could create an organization based along the same lines and the same ideas. I think I was about to cough, and I hit the pause button too soon, so excuse me! I'm old enough to remember when you know late at night, you would see those Tony Robbins infomercials with the firewalk and him screaming at people. And so when when they're talking about those kinds of infomercials that would be on in the 80s and 90s, I remember that. And I remember seeing them as a young person just being like, what the hell even it's this? Like, what? How is it personal power to run over a bed of hot coals? All these years later, I frankly still don't understand it. I had a strange experience with a couple of people who had been through a program like that. Obviously, I'm not going to drop any names here, so that's all I will say. So in my first iteration of self-employment, I had been working with a business advisor who I'll call Tom, obviously not his real name. Tom had owned and operated several successful businesses. He was money motivated, and he had some good business sense, some good business acumen. And I mean, I want to give credit where it's due: I did get some legit advice from Tom. Where things started to go awry is that Tom began to lean on me a lot about social media. And he said, "Well, you know, I just don't feel like you're leveraging your social media presence as well as you could be like, you should be getting leads from Facebook, you should be recording videos on YouTube and getting people to watch those videos and having them want to work with you from doing that." And this was back when all of that was not as ubiquitous as it is now. I mean, everybody now has a YouTube channel, everybody has some bullshit dream of becoming an overnight millionaire because of YouTube. Like a toddler with a smartphone can record stuff and put it on tik tok, or record stuff and put it on YouTube. It's nothing special anymore. But back then, it was still kind of new. And it was still something that was a little bit like the Wild West, you know, maybe you could go and and and scrape up some money or some new business by recording crap and putting it on YouTube. So Tom was like, "you know, I happen to have someone in my Rolodex named Sam, (also not his real name) that could potentially help you. I don't know the guy super well. But I have referred other clients to him that have had positive experiences with him. They've said he's done a good job for them. And I'll give you his email address and a link to his website, check him out. And you know, he might be somebody good to work with..." And that's where I dropped the ball, plain and simple. I'm going to take responsibility for my own actions here. I went to Sam's website and I poked around and I scheduled an intro call with him based primarily on Tom's recommendation of him. I didn't go and do my own research. I didn't do enough digging to really figure out Hey, is this even something that I need? Do I need to bolster my social media in order to have a better company, a better presence? And B is Sam the person-- if so, if the answer to that is yes, then B is Sam really the best person to help me out with it? I did not caveat emptor and I paid for it literally and metaphorically. Like I gave Sam some money and nothing helpful or productive came out of it at all. And I found out later-- now here's the part that I think is shitty on what Tom did. It was my bad to not properly do my research and let the buyer beware. The negative thing that I have about Tom in this situation is he did know Sam. His whole schtick about "I don't really know this guy..." No, he did! Tom and Sam were friends. They had this little private referral thing going where Sam would punt people to Tom, Tom would punt people to Sam and then kind of do this whole, "oh, well, we don't really know each other, heard good things about this guy, though you might check him out." They did know each other. And they had been through some guru's program together, essentially teaching them how to sell and how to, like, get their own little referral system going so that they could share clients incestuously with one another. Obviously, if I had known that, I wouldn't have paid Sam a dime of my money. But that's one of the things about the self-help industry. There are coaches out there that really do give a damn, they care about you, they want to see you improve your life, they want to see you succeed, whatever goal it is that you want to achieve, they want to help you with that. Just like there are personal trainers that if you go in and say "I want to run my first marathon, or I want to do my first Iron Man," like they will help you achieve that. They are genuinely bought in to helping you achieve those goals and doing whatever they need to do to help you succeed. And then there's other people that just don't give a shit. They're in it for the money, or they're at that gym just to make a paycheck, they're running their website just to try to get as many people enrolled into some dumbass group as possible. And that's it. There's no personal investment in you, they don't care if you achieve your goals. And this is one of the points that I think could have been made in the documentary. Or maybe it wasn't the right forum for it, so I'm going to make it here, dammit. You know, not long ago, I read Sandra Aamodt's book, Why Diets Make Us Fat. And one of the things that she talks about is, the diet industry has a very clear, vested financial interest in keeping people on yo-yo diets. You lose weight, you gain it back, you come back again, you lose weight, you gain it back, you come back again, you lose weight, you gain it back. And one of the insidious things about that is each time that you lose weight, you typically gain back even more on the rebound. So then you've got more to lose. And the whole vicious cycle starts all over again. Well, the diet industry profits off of that, because they want to keep you coming back as a repeat customer. It lines their pockets. The same thing can be said about a lot of these self-help or self-improvement gurus or companies or programs, if you got to a point where you achieve some kind of personal Nirvana or enlightenment, or you really did get to a place of self-acceptance, where you're like, "Man, I can look at myself in the mirror and feel so comfortable, so proud, so happy," you wouldn't want to do their programs anymore. You wouldn't want to work with them anymore. like you'd be at a place where you're like, "I'm cool. I got this." Yesterday, I read an article written by Matthew Jones on And the title of the article is 11 billion reasons the self help industry doesn't want you to know the truth about happiness. I want to briefly read a paragraph from that article. And this is again, Matthew Jones speaking, "as a life coach, licensed therapist, addiction specialist and someone earning my doctorate in clinical psychology. The most baffling thing about the self help industry, aside from the irony of my contribution to it, is that it delivers exactly what people want. See, most people actually want on happiness, they practice on happiness, they create it themselves, and then complain about it." Just digest that for a second, I can't help but laugh, because, you know, I think back to the last episode I recorded about my friend, John Doe, and the situation he's going through with being job catfished. He has created that situation and has allowed it to perpetuate and fester. And he is the type of friend-- I love him so dearly, he already knows this-- but he is the type of friend that calls me on the phone and bitches about all these things that he doesn't like. And if I try to offer suggestions about how to mitigate the problem or solve the problem, he doesn't want to hear it. I really felt what Matthew Jones is saying in my soul. There are a lot of people who, if given the opportunity to make changes that could radically improve their lives, they don't want it; they would rather be unhappy and have a whine and moan and stitch and bitch than to do something that might actually make them happy. So to sort of wrap it up here, I definitely don't want to dissuade you from learning experiences. I don't want to paint some very scary, drastic picture that any possible business seminar or workshop or anything that you might ever possibly do for self-improvement could lead you to a sex cult, or that you could be inadvertently financing some terrible organization that's doing things you would never in a million years agree with. I'm really asking you number one above all things to trust your gut. If you learn nothing else from me and listening to my podcast episodes it should be that. Listen to your gut instincts. If something feels wrong, if you feel unsafe, if there's something sinister, and you can't quite put your finger on what it is yet, but you just know that something is wrong, don't sit there and try to rationalize your way out of it. Do what you need to do to stay safe and healthy. The other thing is caveat emptor. Do your research. Do your homework, ask insightful questions. Don't ask a big brother government to pass a bunch of laws to protect you from your own stupidity. Don't go back and cry in your coffee or "Oh, this didn't go the way I wanted it to. I want to refund. I want this, I want that!" No, suck it up, buttercup. Be a responsible adult and say,"Alright." Maybe like in my situation with Tom and Sam, I shouldn't have paid Sam a dime of my money. I learned from that mistake. And I haven't ever repeated it again. That's part of being a mature adult is being able to look at something that perhaps was not your finest moment and say, "I will learn from this experience and not duplicate it again." If ever you feel that you're in a situation whether it's somebody trying to tell you it's a team-building activity, whatever label they're putting on it, if you start to feel that you are slipping down the rabbit hole into a situation that's not safe, you need to listen to those gut instincts because with the world in which we live now, listening to those instincts and being in tune with that sixth sense could save your life. If you enjoyed today's episode, please share it. If you haven't already, take a quick minute to subscribe to this podcast and leave a review for us on iTunes. Bye for now.