Monday, March 23, 2015

Portrait of a Corporate Psychopath: How J.K. Simmons Nailed It in Whiplash

I recently watched Whiplash, starring Miles Teller (as young jazz drummer Andrew) and J.K. Simmons (as Fletcher), and it occurred to me that Fletcher—a bullying, narcissist, manipulative music instructor—is a straight-up psychopath.

I read a bunch of reviews about the film, and there are plenty of reviewers who believe, as I do, that Fletcher is personality disturbed. But many other reviewers don’t, or don’t see the relevancy to the story.

Well, of course a character’s psychopathy is relevant to the story. We can barely make sense of the story without it. ‘Nuff said about that.

I’m more interested in why some reviewers didn’t recognize Fletcher as a psychopath to begin with, because it reminds me how difficult it can be to see behind the psychopath’s mask in real life. And in real life, we need to see behind the mask, or we risk becoming the prey of these warped shits.

What Makes Psychopaths So Hard to Identify?

 A few things.

First, psychopaths are very good at mimicking normal behavior. No doubt from a very early age, the psychopath recognized he was different from others and began taking pains to hide his differences. (Note: Children less than 18 years cannot be diagnosed as psychopathic, as no tool exists for this purpose. However, the true psychopath has been troubled from a very early age, if not from the womb.)

Second, while statistically many of us may know a psychopath, we haven't have enough interaction with him to evaluate or witness his true nature.

Third, most of us have no idea how to identify psychopathic behavior even when we do see it. People who spend significant time studying psychopathy are generally physicians with a particular interest in abnormal psychology, criminologists, sociologists, writers of true crime, fans of true crime, and those who’ve been burned by a psychopath, in which case your curiosity is likely more of an obsession. (I'll let you guess where I fall in this list.)

Fourth, most of us accept people at face value and have something in us that practically renders us incapable of believing bad things about others, especially those closest to us, like our spouses, siblings, parents, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

Fifth, human beings are biased, and our biases can blind us to unpleasant truths about others, even if the truth is staring us in the face. For instance, we tend to equate intelligence and physical beauty with good moral character, even when we know it’s irrational to do so.

All of these factors can cause us to be vulnerable to the psychopath and especially the corporate (or subclinical) psychopath, because the workplace has its own rules about acceptable and unacceptable behavior that often hinder the detection (and more importantly) dismissal of psychopaths.

Oh Fletcher, You Devious Monster, You!  

(Warning: MAJOR spoilers coming …)

Simmons’ performance is Whiplash is phenomenal. He earned his Oscar and then some, in my opinion.

And while a few have criticized the script for its alleged holes (such as not providing the viewer with enough insight into Fletcher’s motivation), again I say, what’s there to understand? The man is a psychopath. How do I know? From the script of course.  

Signs of Fletcher’s Psychopathy  

Telltale Sign #1. After inviting Andrew (and by the way, Miles Teller is awesome as Andrew) to join the band, Fletcher tells him that practice starts at 6:00 AM sharp. “Don’t be late,” he warns Andrew.  

Andrew oversleeps, waking up at 6:03, and then rushes to practice—only to be greeted by exactly no one. At first, we think this is Fletcher’s way of making his word his bond. After all, 6:00 AM is 6:00 AM.  

But then we learn (from a sign posted next to the rehearsal room door), that practice begins at 9:00 AM. Anxious, confused, and desperate to be in the band, Andrew waits. Practice starts promptly at 9:00, and Fletcher never says a word to Andrew about the discrepancy.  

Why not? Because he’s a flippin’ psychopath, and psychopaths like to mess with people’s heads for fun. By telling Andrew the wrong time and having him sit for three hours without a damn clue (“Did Fletcher leave because I was late? If so, is he coming back? Did Fletcher intend to spend some quality time with me, and I blew it? Did I hear wrong? Was this all some weird game?”) Fletcher exercises his dominance right off the bat. Sicko.  

Telltale Sign #2. During a break in practice, Fletcher casually asks Andrew about his mom and dad. Andrew tells Fletcher that Dad is a writer and then corrects himself—well, he’s really an English teacher—and Mom left when Andrew was a baby.  

Later (but not much later), Fletcher openly, loudly, and cruelly berates Andrew for not keeping time, and then takes the whole thing up a notch (which hardly seems possible, but he does it) by taunting Andrew about his Dad's "failed" writing career, which caused Mom to leave, because who wants a loser? (And let’s just forget that by Fletcher’s own logic he’s a failed musician. Doesn’t matter. Psychopaths are skilled at making the illogical sound logical—at least at the time.)

Unfortunately, psychopaths are also skilled at taking small bits of your personal history and twisting them into something ugly and shameful and then throwing the whole stinking mess in your face when you’re feeling vulnerable. For kicks. Folks, this is not normal behavior. If someone ever does this to you. Stop and think. Please.  

(By the way, this is why you should never tell your psychopathic coworker ANYTHING, no matter how benign, about your personal life. If at all possible, he or she will find a way to hurt you with the information, trust me.)  

Telltale Sign #3. Fletcher’s upset about something, but we don’t know what. Later, a teary-eyed Fletcher tells the class he’s just learned a prized former student died in a car accident.  

But, surprise! Fletcher is only telling part of the truth. The student, we later learn, hanged himself.  

Now ladies and gents, who the hell lies about something like that? Through tears? A psychopath, that’s who. Psychopaths are masters of half-truths and outright untruths, and they lie about crazy crap, all while feigning sincerity.  

We’ll later learn the former student's parents blame Fletcher for driving their son to depression and suicide, but even that’s no explanation for Fletcher’s lie.  

You say, well, Fletcher felt guilty so he shaded the truth. 

Really? Would a normal person shade the truth at a time like this and in that manner? I don’t think so. A normal person with a case of the guilts might neglect to mention how the student died, but he wouldn’t make up an alternate story to cover the truth.  

However, a psychopath would, because a psychopath is (a) twisted and (b) incapable of taking responsibility. And this inability to acknowledge any fault leads the psychopath to extraordinary lengths, such as lying about something most of us would find sacred.  

Telltale Sign #4. Fletcher loves to divide and conquer. In his quest to screw with Andrew’s head, he plays all the drummers against each other, forcing them to compete in the most dysfunctional of ways, even while manipulating each of them to curry his favor.  

Again, I gotta hand it to J.K. Simmons. He played his part to perfection. But Damien Chazelle, who wrote the script, deserves his credit, too.  

Not only does Fletcher abuse, he drives the students to distrust and abuse each other in the foulest of fashions. If this isn’t an accurate portrayal of the psychopathic leader, I don’t know what is.  

Psychopathic leaders destroy teams. Show me a team characterized by backbiting, backstabbing, tattle telling, gossip, distrust, and fear, and I’ll show you a leader who's either personality disordered or severely character disturbed.  

Telltale Sign #5. Psychopaths have rigid personalities. They typically don’t learn from mistakes, and no matter how much time passes or what their behavior costs them, they don’t mature emotionally or morally.  

So, praise the Lord, Fletcher’s employer finally has enough of him, and Fletcher is “freed up to pursue other opportunities.” Unfortunately, even after everything he’s been through, Andrew doesn’t grasp that Fletcher is evil and initiates contact.  

(Bad, bad idea. If Andrew knew what I knew and ran into his former mentor at say, an industry-related panel discussion, when said mentor greeted “Andrew” with a fake smile and a “Hey, look who’s here!” Andrew would have strode right past that bitch him with a cold, quick “Hello” and then gone on about his business.)  

Andrew and Fletcher sit down for a chat, and Fletcher invites Andrew to play in Fletcher’s new band, because the current drummer “isn’t cutting it,” but not before Fletcher begins reminiscing about the past and says he only did what any extraordinary teacher would have done to push his students to excellence. When Andrew asks Fletcher whether there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, Fletcher says no.  

Like a true psychopath, Fletcher manages to turn a vice into a virtue while demonstrating by both word and deed he’s learned nothing from losing his job (not to mention everything that proceeded that event) and that he’s back to his old tricks (i.e., divide and conquer) by playing Andrew against this new, unnamed drummer. Will Andrew see what’s what? Or will he take the bait and subject himself to Fletcher’s abuse one more time?  

Sigh. What do you think?

(By the way, Miles Teller likened Whiplash to a horror movie. I’m not sure I understand, but at this point in the story I was tempted to scream, “Don’t do it Andrew! Don’t listen to Fletcher! It’s a trap!”)


Hollywood psychopaths generally get what’s coming to them, one way or the other.

Real-life corporate psychopaths, however, are usually more fortunate.  

However, I don’t advocate spending one’s time fantasizing about heaping coals of revenge on the head of the corporate psycho, although I get it.  

Instead, I recommend getting the hell out as soon as possible. The only way to get lasting revenge on the corporate psychopath is to live a rich, happy life doing what you enjoy surrounded by the people you respect and love. Psychopaths, who are envious of everyone, hate that.  

As for Andrew, some say he got his redemption. Others disagree. I believe he did but at tremendous cost.  

But that’s the way with psychopaths. Engagement with them almost always comes at a cost. They are takers, abusers, and users. 

That’s why it’s best to stay away if you can.  

Oh, and one last thing.  

If you’ve been the target or victim of a corporate psychopath, don’t let anyone minimize your experiences. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: some people just love to defend the indefensible. I’m not sure what their deal is, but I don’t care and neither should you. You don’t need a medical license to know when someone is behaving badly, and you definitely don’t need a medical license to know when someone is hurting you. You just don’t.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

When Politeness Fails

It wouldn’t be entirely off track to conclude we humans are a rude bunch of shut your mouths.

Go to any career-related website or job board, and you’ll read complaint after complaint about rude recruiters and heartless HR managers.

And each year, incivility in the workplace, including workplace bullying, costs employers millions, if not billions, in increased unscheduled absences, increased use of medical plans, lost productivity, and lawsuits. It's estimated that nearly 98% of employees have experienced bad behavior at work.

How ironic then, when politeness actually contributes to a less civil society.

When Nice Isn’t Good
I like nice. Nice people make the job more pleasant and less stressful.

Of course, that’s when people aren't just pretending to be nice. 

Because when nice is the thinnest of veneers attached with cheap glue to the ugliness underneath, nice isn’t very nice at all. More than that, genuinely decent folks should think long and hard about playing the games these so-called nice folks demand.

The Nice Narcissist
I used to work with a manipulative and devious individual I’ll call Andrea (not her real name).

Exhibiting the signs of a malignant narcissist, Andrea was a frequent and practiced liar whose one mission in life was to get her wayand she didn’t care who got hurt or what rules she broke in the process. 

While Andrea's true personality was visible to anyone with eyes to see, she wrapped it in a cloak of faux politeness.

Andrea had learned long ago that if she gave the appearance of decency, no one would challenge her evil acts. And mostly she was right. In the time I worked with her, it was rare for anyone to confront Andrea’s bold-faced lies, hypocritical statements, or nasty ways of using and abusing people.

The Problem with Politeness
It’s been said that it takes two to lie: One to lie and one to listen. Unfortunately, our workplaces are filled to abundance with those eager to lie and those only too willing to listen.

Most of us listen because it’s the courteous and socially accepted option. We’re taught that it’s not okay to tell someone in authority she’s lying, especially at work. In fact, never at work.

And this is a huge problem, because liars in the workplace generally aren’t content to spin tall tales for amusement value alone (although some are sick enough that lying and the sense of control it brings is pleasurable).

Instead, these deceivers want us to use their lies as the foundation for our action. They want us to swallow their bull and then do something we wouldn’t do if they’d simply leave us the hell alone.

Other times the objective is to exercise dominanceI will tell you a blatant lie, and I will force you to acknowledge it as truth.

Either way, it’s a violation of another’s free will, and it’s wrong.

It’s also offensive, because it’s a perversion of social mores created to protect the common good, not defile it.

A Preferred Way of Relating Is Just That: A Preference
It’s exasperating to what lengths some folks will go to excuse the bad behaviors of others.

“That’s just the way she is,” they say. “Nobody’s perfect,” they say. “It’s none of my business,” they say.

Like I said, exasperating. No one’s asking for perfection, just don't be a lying skeeze. But if you want to be a lying skeeze, then leave me out of it, please. Don’t expect me to validate your view of the world, don’t expect me to participate in your immoral dealings, don’t expect me to listen to your BS with an enthralled expression on my face—just don’t.

And as for the “that’s just the way he/she is” school of thought, well, I think that’s bunk. Even the personality disordered choose how they will interact with others. In the case of malignant narcissists, they manipulate, deceive, gossip, lie, backstab, and betray because it suits their purposes. Just like I’ll tell them to go to hell because it suits my purposes.

When Narcissism Becomes Normal, We’re All In Trouble
Dave Orisson, a pastor who writes about narcissism without sparing the church, explains it this way (highlights mine):

“… a cursory glance at our culture would be enough to conclude that narcissism is becoming not only normal, but desirable. 
Perhaps the qualities of narcissism—self-promotion, fantasy superiority, need for admiration, exploitation of others, sense of entitlement, lack of empathy or desire to care about the feelings of others—are so much a part of the normal lives of young people that no one especially thinks of them as problematic. When even those who are not narcissists accept narcissistic behavior as normal, the difficulty of dealing with those who hurt and use others may become insurmountable.”

Bucking the Trend
There are many valid reasons to keep your opinion of your coworkers’ veracity to yourself, that’s a fact. Still, allowing the people of the lie to define the world for the rest of us is a very bad idea.

Pastor Dave has a better idea:

“In relationships, especially, we can call out the behavior. We still claim to hold positive values in relationships. So we have the right and responsibility to help others maintain those values. Narcissism still hurts others, no matter how normal the behavior seems. Hurting others is still not acceptable. Speak up against abuse and lying and cheating and compromised values.
But there’s more. We can smile more and be more kind. A thousand little acts of kindness to show the world that narcissism does not rule everyone. Affirm relationships. Tell people that you value them and are grateful. For so many, the characteristics of narcissism have been adopted because they are afraid or have been made to feel unimportant. Thank people. See people, especially those who have been invisible in the past. Do things narcissists wouldn’t think about doing, especially for the sake of others.”

True kindness is more valuable than fake politeness any day.