Some time ago I attended one of the recruiting sessions at the Landmark Forum, a hotly contested self-help program sometimes referred to as a cult. At the time, I was part of a small team at an early-stage startup. We’d been working hard on new product releases and growing our community. We’d had a couple of big wins but still had a long way to go. Morale was by no means low, though we hadn’t taken much time to invest in team-building events as of late.
We were having our daily standup when our founder ask us to cancel our Tuesday night plans to attend a Landmark event with him; he made a compelling case about it helping people re-frame problems and achieve their goals. Friends know I am fascinated by professional and personal development, so I was an easy yes, and Landmark sounded familiar. It wasn’t until I got back to my computer that I realized why.
The most neutral description of Landmark Education comes from its Wikipedia page, which describes it as “an LLC that offers educational programs in personal development.” Keep googling and the descriptors get decidedly more extreme. Some call it a cult. Others call it the answer to their prayers. It has changed lives and opened doors; it has been banned in France. A list of related search on Google include: landmark education scam, landmark education court cases, landmark education brainwashing, and more in that vein.
I told a friend of mine about this “team field trip” to Landmark, and she flooded my inbox with link after link on the horrors of Landmark: how they singled you out, broke you down, convinced you to confess you were a terrible person in front of a room full of strangers, or so the stories went. I was terrified. It sounded like a cruel, mean sort of group therapy. Group therapy was something I’d be loathe to participate in among strangers; realizing I’d be sharing my insecurities with my new-ish co-workers was even worse. At the time I was only two months into a new job, still working out the team culture and individual personalities, and my own work rhythm as well. I wasn’t quite ready to bring the skeletons out of the closet.
I tried to back out — as by then, most of my team members had — but my boss gently insisted. Knowing I used to live in France, he sent me an article about how Landmark had been banned there. I’m still not sure how this was meant to convince me.
The team was somehow persuaded, though, and we headed over, dragging our feet to the event. I remember that on a sunny spring day, we were taken to a basement level, window-free room with harsh fluorescent lights and drab floor carpeting. Enthusiastic volunteers gave us pamphlets and excitedly ushered us in. We sat in a row, nervous but not yet taking anything seriously, nonchalantly tucking the pamphlets beneath our chairs and shaking our heads at the intern who had been duped into actually giving up his contact info.
Our evening would be led by a woman plucked straight from the 80s. She wore a garish, shoulder-padded red blazer over a black dress, an uncomfortable-looking pearl choker wrapped around her neck.
Too much makeup, too smiley, a little judgey, she took stories from the crowd, asked people to share their problems, enthusiastically (and aggressively) pushing them to “work through” them. I worried at first that I would be forced to share personal weaknesses with my team and the audience, but I was relieved to find that sort of self-flagellation was entirely voluntary, driven by Landmartians on their final day of a weekend workshop. People spoke about reconnecting with parents who had traumatized them in one way or another; they cried and told stories about getting back together with exes, who they were now engaged to. These were success stories. Thanks to Landmark, these otherwise unhappy people had been able to forgive, once they were taught how to reframe the situation; once Landmark told them what they were doing wrong. There are many accounts of the drama that goes down during these confessionals. Personally, these confessions didn’t resonate with me, and it felt awkward to witness them. I was also hungry and tired. (Bright lights, non-functioning water fountains, no food during a three-hour dinner-time event; these details have been widely criticized as thinly veiled tactics to weaken recruitees and participants into agreement.)
By far the most uncomfortable part of the evening came during a recruiting break. Were we not moved by these stories of life-changing revelation? (Frankly, I had become bored and started to doodle.) Recruiting was hard to stomach and difficult to brush off, because it came from someone I knew: my boss. It is one thing to ignore a stranger whose story feels like a sales pitch; it’s another entirely to listen to how an event has changed someone’s life when you know (and work for) that person. I felt guilty saying no, but had to decline. I’d rather pay a therapist $250 an hour for private counseling than deal with my demons in a crowd full of people, egging me on to break down.
The recruiting break was also visibly uncomfortable for my team members. Perhaps because I am drawn to personal development, positive psychology, and similar topics others might be embarrassed by, I was less traumatized by the event than they. Two of our engineers tried to escape during the break but were persuaded to remain, and another looked so uncomfortable I wanted to hug him. Here was a man who spoke forcefully and easily defended his opinion in the office, but who appeared pale, small, and slightly afraid under those fluorescent lights. It is a humbling experience to see the strongest among you turn weak before your eyes.
In the end, only one of us succumbed to the recruitment effort. (We shook our heads again at that same intern who had given up his contact info at registration.) While Landmark failed to convince us to open our pockets and our Pandora’s box of secrets, I couldn’t help thinking that the event was, on some level, a success. We had been thrown into this strange, uncomfortable and mildly disorienting environment and endured it together. By the time we emerged from that oppressive basement, breathed the smog-filled city air that at that moment felt so fresh and inviting, I actually felt closer to my team.
My biggest takeaway, and what most improved how I related to my team, was feeling an enormous amount of empathy at that event — not for others in the room confessing their deepest insecurities — but for my teammates, who had been just as squeamish, if not much more, than I. We were no longer entirely the confident versions of ourselves we bring to work every day; we had shared in discomfort and mildly exposed our weaknesses. That made us just a little bit more human, and helped us to be a little more understanding and generous in our day to day. If we could survive a pseudo psychological cult recruitment session together, we could get through just about anything.
I suppose it did the trick then — to an extent. I never looked at my team the same way again, but then again, we never talked about it after that either. Landmark represented more a shock to the system than a harmonious new balance. We should have processed that exercise together and revisited it, but we mostly buried it instead. I recall that on the subway ride home, one of my co-workers expressed concern that the Landmark incident would scare our lead engineer into deflecting for companies whose team-building exercises were less…controversial. This would honestly have never crossed my mind, and was more or less the extent of our discussion about Landmark.
The closest I’ve gotten to really processing what I gained from that experience has been through writing this post — and even now it makes me uncomfortable, and even now I don’t know what the perfect team-building exercise looks like.
All I know for sure is that it has stuck with me. It’s safe to say Landmark was the strangest trust fall I’ve ever faced in my life.
This post is cross-listed on Medium.