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How To Know If Your Company Uses Brainwashing

A lot of businesses we see, especially well-meaning nonprofits and advocacy organizations, use brainwashing against their employees and clients. Most don't even realize they're doing it. But, it is a key factor in sabotaging their efforts to create an inclusive environment.

Could this be happening in your organization?

First, we need to ask, what is brainwashing? Is it a problem? If it's a problem, why? How do we immunize from brainwashing in our workplaces and create a truly inclusive environment?

Brainwashing sounds scary, so you might be surprised to know it's more common than many of us realize.

The good news is that just because an organization is engaging in brainwashing, doesn't mean you have to be brainwashed.

So, What is Brainwashing?

Merriam-Websters defines it like this:

1: a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas

2: persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship

Most of us think about R. Kelly, Jonestown, Patty Hearst, and other extreme situations when we think of brainwashing, but we don't realize that the way all brainwashing starts does not look as extreme as how it ends.

It starts with persuasion. Often, it also starts with a common cause and passion for a shared interest. We feel inspired by our leaders, and we want to be more like them. We believe in what our organization does. Our leaders call our organization our "work family."

THEN, someone says, "If you don't like it, you can just leave," "People who last here don't question that," "Successful people here never . . ."

Is Brainwashing a Problem?

You've probably heard most of the phrases above, and maybe heard them from people you like, love, or trust.

Sometimes, we even seek out brainwashing. When someone else has ideas--about time, money, learning, or heck, even driving a car--that are amazing and create good results, we often want to adopt those ideas.

If you're anything like me, you have a brain that just won't quit offering unhelpful suggestions. I have hired coaches because what they engage in is brainwashing. (They will yell at me until I overcome my limitations.) Many of us follow motivational speakers because of the brainwashing effect they have, whether this is for good or evil.

Why Can Brainwashing Be a Problem?

Brainwashing becomes dangerous when we become conditioned to trust a brainwasher's opinions over our own.

When we try to force someone else's opinion to be right, even when we disagree, we are adopting self-brainwashing. This is very different than considering and testing out the other person's opinion to see how it could serve us.

Sometimes, followers will treat a charismatic leader as a brainwasher, even if that leader does not intend to brainwash. This happens when the leader encourages people to think on their own, but a follower hangs on to a particular statement by the leader and punishes themself with it.

Other times, though, leaders punish followers for challenging the leader's opinion, for opting out, for questioning, or for not buying.

I recently heard a story about an event that was scheduled for the week after the COVID lockdowns started. Before news of COVID became widespread, many people bought tickets, reserved hotel rooms, and invested in committing to the event. Then, some people let the organization know they lived with vulnerable family members and would need to miss the event.

The brainwashing behavior was what happened next. Members of the group began shaming those who were worried about COVID, saying that they needed to take responsibility for their commitments, and anyone truly committed to the group would not make excuses to avoid the workshop.

This is an example of brainwashing behavior. It says, "People like us go to this workshop, and if you don't come, you're not a real member of the group." It punishes those who make a different choice.

Other examples are, "Everyone in our family votes Democrat/Republican."

"In our business, we love the Red Sox."

"In our spiritual family, we believe love is always the answer."

These sound like nice, unifying phrases, but when we use them as unifying, we are also excluding some others, and this can easily become very problematic brainwashing.

How Do We Immunize From Brainwashing?

It might surprise you to hear that we immunize from brainwashing by adopting actual mental hygiene.

Brainwashing happens when we look to others for our ideas of reality, whether we do so out of our own insecurity or because we are afraid of punishment (for example shaming) from the group.

Mental hygiene happens when we check in with our own reality and use all of our resources to serve our purpose and the impact we want to make in the world.

Most of us have not been taught actual mental hygiene, and so we are very susceptible to brainwashing.

Many leaders who say they are teaching mental hygiene are actually using brainwashing.

How do you know the difference? You check in with your integrity and how you feel. If you have thoughts like, "Maybe there's something wrong with me because I'm different," or "I just can't seem to fit in," or "I might not belong here," there's a good chance you're experiencing brainwashing.

The good news is that in my experience, shifting to a mental hygiene routine works, even if others around you still engage in brainwashing behavior.

If you or someone you know might be experiencing brainwashing at work, encourage them to get support!


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