Joshua Christopherson is a supervisor of sales for Prosper, Inc., a Utah company that peddles on-line training and motivation courses. The courses range in price from $3,000 to $15,000. By most accounts Christopherson is a decent enough guy, albeit a bit obsessed with the performance of his sales team. He apparently read about an incident involving the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who plunged a student's head under water and then told him that his yearning for learning must equal his (underwater) yearning for air. Like any good manager looking for an edge, Christopherson decided to bring this aggressive "Socratic method" to his team.
Chad Hudgens, a member of the under-performing sales group, made the mistake of volunteering for the "team-building exercise." In a park outside Prosper's offices, he lay on his back with his head downhill. Co-workers knelt on either side and pinned his arms. Christopherson proceeded to pour water from a jug over his nose and mouth.
"So they held me down," Hudgens reports. "...I can't scream because the water's going down my throat...Toward the end, I'm starting to black out. I think I am drowning."
After finishing with Hudgens, Christopherson told the assembled sales team:"You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there. I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales." Let's give Christopherson some credit: that is one sales lesson no one is likely to forget!
Ignorance or Evil?
I assume you may share my puzzlement at the thought process that led Christopherson to his training plan. Perhaps we find a clue in the May newsletter from Prosper, which offers the following message:
In business and in life, we are often inspired in some way or another to do the things we do. Each of us has something that inspires us, be it a friend, a goal, a dream, or even a Mother. As many of us reflect this time of year on the inspiration that comes from our Mothers, the focus of the newsletter this month is inspiration.
So maybe Christopherson's mother inspired him to do it? In any event, and no surprise here, Hudgens is suing his (former) employer for torturing him. Prosper Inc. maintains that what Christopherson did was unauthorized, overzealous and misguided, but it falls short of torture.
"We are not the mean waterboarding company that people think we are," says the aptly named George Brunt, general counsel for the company. He adds that Christopherson is a "nice, sensitive guy."
Hudgens claims that the harassment was not limited to the water boarding. If the 10-person sales team went a day without a sale, members had to work the next day standing up - Christopherson removed all the chairs.
Management Philosophy 101
The original Socrates was a very interesting fellow, one who might well be confused by what passes for society these days. In the dialogue Meno, Socrates tries to determine whether virtue is inherent in us or whether it can be taught. This leads to an investigation of the nature of virtue itself. Although his direct answer is that virtue is unteachable, Socrates does propose the doctrine of recollection to explain why we nevertheless are in possession of significant knowledge about such matters. He argues that knowledge and virtue are so closely related that no human ever knowingly does evil: we all invariably do what we believe to be best.
Given the hindsight of a couple of thousand years, I'd say Socrates was spot off on this one. But he may have a point with the hapless Christopherson. He was doing what he thought to be best. He was trying to make a point. The fact that his method demonstrated an alarming lack of compassion and common sense is probably more a symptom of ignorance than sheer evil. As far as the victim is concerned, however, that is a distinction without a difference.