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Cult Coaching: Using the BITE Model to Recognize Unethical Online Coaching Programs

Business coaching is an entirely unregulated industry. According to Market Research, “there are more than 500 training and “certification” programs worldwide, and many of them will certify you if you simply pay them a fee.” 

Business coaching continues to grow exponentially, year after year, with a market size of $11Bn in the US alone. 

The problem with this exponential growth and lack of regulation is that some coaching programs are taking advantage of others. People are being manipulated, drinking the Kool-Aid, and losing thousands of dollars to coaching programs that promise big outcomes but return little results. 

As I stumbled across the BITE Model by Dr. Steve Hassan, I found startling similarities and behaviors between cults and coaching programs. I’m not here to say that all online coaches or programs are cults. What I am here to say is that there are striking similarities between unethical online coaching programs and cults.

Today, we’re going to explore how the BITE Model can help you recognize cult coaching. 

What is the BITE Model? 

The BITE Model was created as a potential way to evaluate cases involving exploitative control. Dr. Steven Hassan, an expert on undue influence, completed his dissertation in 2020. In it, he explores predatory exploitation and introduces the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control

The BITE model is as follows: 

  • B- Behavior 
  • I- Information 
  • T- Thought
  • E- Emotion 

When I started reading through the different examples of cult coaching and cult influencing, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my experience in certain coaching programs. And “BITE” is oddly appropriate, since when you bite somebody, it hurts. 

The continuum of influence 

Manipulative and unethical coaching practices are rampant. Without any regulation over the coaching industry, you’re not sure whether you’re getting a qualified leader or someone with 45 minutes of business experience. Even the FTC has a page on how to recognize if a coaching program is a scam

I’m here to start a conversation on what’s happening in some corners of the unregulated coaching industry. 

Before you get too nervous about the program you signed up for (and before I start having virtual stones thrown at me), keep in mind I am not saying all coaching programs are cults. It’s not any ONE thing that makes a cult; it’s a cumulation of things. All within one company, one program, one group.

It’s not all black and white. Influence exists on a continuum. Think about the coaching program you’re in and where you’d fall on the influence spectrum: 

  • Are you treated with compassion or shame?  
  • Are you allowed to be creative or stuck in fear and guilt? 
  • Are you 100% yourself, or have you taken on a new persona to fit into a program? 

As we uncover some signs of exploitative influence, keep these questions in mind.  Contrary to what diet companies and business coaches without business experience will tell you, shame and guilt are not normal or acceptable ways of motivating yourself. It’s toxic. And, in some cases, maybe even cultish. 

Source: Freedom Of Mind

How Can You Recognize the Signs of Cult Coaching?

Using the BITE Model, we’re going to go through some of the things I’ve personally experienced, witnessed, and even engaged in (unwittingly). I’ll also include examples that I’ve heard from entrepreneur friends and colleagues in this space.  

Keep in mind as we go through these signs of cult coaching, we’re talking about a collective or a whole—BITE techniques that are being used across an entire company. 

There are four ways cult coaches control you: behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions. Here are the signs to look for to assess whether a coach or program is cult-like or not. 

They discourage your individualism

Here are three ways cult coaches aim to control your behavior by limiting individualism: 

  1. Require certain rituals.

One of the ways rituals show up is by requiring the same morning routines or evening routines. Whether it’s journaling, meditation, or other rituals, there are certain routines everyone “must” follow to be successful. 

That’s not to say rituals or morning routines are wrong, but if routines are required “or else,” that’s a sign of cult coaching.

  1. Create a culture of shame. 

Shame is tossed around in these Facebook groups left and right. As soon as someone reveals some type of doubt or vulnerability, everybody else has been so well indoctrinated that they just start tearing into this person. 

When you witness or participate in a culture of shame, you are scared to share your own thoughts because the ridicule will come your way soon enough.

  1. Impose rigid rules and regulations. 

In cult coaching, when you express doubts or say you’re having trouble, they’ll ask have you been doing X or have you been doing Y? 

One example you’ll see is requiring a certain number of direct messages. Have you been sliding into the DMs to connect with 30 people every day? 

If you say something like “No, this feels strange,” or “I don’t know if I want to do that,” they chalk it up to you breaking the rules. 

In turn, these rules instill a deep sense of obedience and dependency. You believe your leader knows best and you behave accordingly. 

Cult coaches teach that their way is the “only way” 

Cult coaches are excellent at distorting information. It’s as if cult coaches have a personal mantra: “If the info doesn’t come from us, it’s sus” —as in “suspect” or “suspicious.”  All other perspectives are wrong (no Ifs, Ands, or What Abouts allowed). 

Here are two techniques some coaches use to control your information. 

  1. Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda  

With a lot of these bigger programs, they have so many resources they can afford to create tons of newsletters, books, podcasts, blogs, and videos to consume. 

If you are following the rules and consuming all content— and there’s no external content—you are going to be consuming a lot of content from one particular source, which is really, really, really going to limit your exposure to an outside perspective.

Getting information from ONE source is dangerous for your creativity. But cult coaches don’t want to encourage creative thinking. They want you to stay in line and absorb their doctrine as fact. 

  1. Information monitored by the group

If someone brings up an outsider’s perspective, they’re verbally attacked by the rest of the group. 

A common practice is to make fun of people who criticize or poke holes in their program. I know because I saw it. I remember sipping the Kool-Aid, laughing at the member who didn’t “get” it. 

I wouldn’t at all be surprised if I get a lot of backlash for sharing this post. Some coaches will likely make fun of me to their students as a way to tear into my credibility. (After all, my perspective and experience cannot be valid in the face of what it is these programs put out there). 

Cult coaches control what you’re allowed to think

Group members must accept and internalize the group’s doctrine as truth. Using the black and white logical fallacy, cult coaches instill a belief that there is one right way and everything else is wrong. There are no gray areas. No spectrums. Everything is a yes/no or good/evil.

Through hours and hours of Live videos, trainings, and lessons, members are taught the correct answer over and over again. They respond to questions like a chant, proud to know the “right” answer and please their leader. 

These cult coaches are GOOD at what they do. They wouldn’t be raking in the millions if they weren’t.

Here are three more ways cult coaches control what members think: 

  1. Loaded language and cliches

Certain words and phrases are used over and over and over again, to the point where you feel a part of the community. You’re speaking the language. You get it

Over time, these platitudes start to encourage a cognitive bias: groupthink. Groupthink, according to Psychology Today, is “when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible.”

  1. Us vs. them

Under information control, feedback and behavior are monitored by the group. This feeds into the Us vs. Them mentality, another way of controlling your thoughts.  

Often, the response to a countering perspective is something along the lines of “They just don’t get it.” 

I’ve seen “us vs. them” with my own eyes on more than one occasion. I even participated in it. Here’s what it looks like: 

  • Someone comments on Facebook asking a question that’s not allowed (challenging the coach’s doctrine).
  • Hoards of members will comment, insinuating something is wrong with you if the doctrine isn’t working (or flat out making fun of the person and ripping them to shreds).
  • The Facebook administrators delete the post. 
  • Balance is restored… 

Or is it? 

4. Thought stopping 

Criticism has no place in cult coaching. Coaches instill thought-stopping to control how you think. Negative thoughts about the group, the program, and the coaches aren’t permitted.

Someone has a critique or doubt? Well, that’s just not allowed. In one particular coaching program, students weren’t even supposed to email their instructors and were “discouraged from asking questions” all together.

Thought stopping shuts down reality-testing by stopping negative thoughts about the cult and only allowing positive thoughts. (The EI assessment I use, EQ-i 2.0, includes reality testing as an emotional intelligence skill you can improve. Learn more about reality testing here). 

Cult coaches manipulate and shame you  

Cult love is conditional. Cult coaches make new members feel great about themselves, then tear the ones that don’t stay in line down over time. 

Here are four BITE Model tactics that cult coaches often implement to control your emotions. 

  1. Promoting extreme emotional highs and lows

Cult coaches use love bombing—a tactic often used by narcissist romantic partners— to manipulate the environment and make you feel like everything is perfect. One moment, you’re feeling the emotional high of praise. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, your coach insults your intelligence and makes you feel less than. 

A perfect example of love bombing can be seen in the Nxivm pyramid scheme, led by exposed cult leader Keith Raniere. 

In 2003, Forbes called Raniere “The World’s Strangest Executive Coach,” finding that he ran a “cult-like program aimed at breaking down his subjects psychologically.”

Its early courses would condition students to “become emotionally dependent on a system of rewards and punishment.” How? By scolding students. “Coaches would break down the students’ self-esteem and scold them for failing to achieve their goals, then lift them up with a positive affirmation.”

I’m not saying any online coach programs will turn out to be sex cults (hopefully). But it’s interesting to see how similar these approaches are. 

  1. Narrowing what feelings and actions are allowed 

Manipulated members and coaches keep the blame off of the coaches and the program by narrowing what feelings are allowed. They teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of anger and doubt.

  • You can’t have needs.
    Cult coaches frame your needs as evil, wrong, or selfish. If you need to take a break or scale back, there’s something wrong with you (never the coach). You’re not allowed to feel overwhelmed or exhausted—they frame feelings as a sign of a mindset issue or, again, something wrong with you.
  • You can’t have doubts or questions.
    If you question the coach, especially in front of the group, you’ll be ridiculed or attacked by the wolves. One student of a coaching program remembers being called a “helpless baby.”   
  1. Making you feel like your problems are your fault.    
    Let’s say you have a question about why your sales calls aren’t converting. You’re nervous because you’re seen others speak up before and get ostracized, but you really, truly care about being successful. You speak up because you need help.

Finally, you say it out loud. You’re not closing 10 sales a week, or whatever it is your coach says is expected and normal (and “totally possible if you really believe”). 

Here’s what happens in that scenario. The coach doesn’t ask you specifics about your offer or your target audience. Instead, he goes deep on what you’re doing or not doing. He starts asking questions:

  • Are you following my morning routine? 
  • Are you talking to 32 people a day?   
  • Have you listened to my latest podcast? 

If the answer is no, if you haven’t followed every single piece of advice or doctrine as your personal GPS, your shortcomings are no one’s fault but your own. 

Your coach then tells you it’s a mindset issue. Or the reason your failing is because you’re not following her doctrine. 

Yet, if you close a record number of deals this week, it’s all thanks to the coach. It has nothing to do with your hard work, mindset, or dedication. It’s all them. 

  1. Irrational fears about leaving the group

We all crave community. When you’re a part of a team or a part of the “in” crowd, it’s natural to want to stay. You want to feel like you’re a part of something. 

One of the tactics that’s hard to recognize is having irrational fears and phobias about leaving the group. The coach ostracizes or makes fun of whoever leaves the group, playing into your fear of isolation (and feeds into us vs. them and group monitoring above). The leader makes you believe anyone who leaves is leaving because there is something wrong with them. 

When it comes to recognizing emotional control and cult coaching, I’ll leave you with this tip from Alice Greczyn, the founder of Dare to Doubt

“Instead of focusing on the faith, ideology, or belief system of a group, focus on the behavior of the people involved. Don’t disregard your feelings. Determine for yourself whether the group is healthy FOR YOU.”

Keep Your Eyes and Mind Open 

Manipulative marketing tactics are happening everywhere, within the coaching space and beyond. What I want is to help you filter through misleading marketing claims. What I want is to prevent others from falling into the same traps I have. 

Practice curiosity. Why are income claims so enticing? Why does one message make you feel inspired and another leaves you feeling fear, guilt, and shame? 

As you’re going around online and being exposed to some excellent manipulation tactics, I want you to walk into these different situations with your eyes wide open. Allow yourself to question and stay curious.

Have you experienced cult coaching? Send me a DM on Instagram or LinkedIn and let me know what you thought of this post.