A Dysfunctional Personality, But a Career Success

In an intriguing article in the latest Atlantic
magazine, David Dobbs, who writes on science and medicine and who blogs
at neuronculture.com, reports on research from the University of Leiden
in the Netherlands, studying “orchid children.”   “Orchid children” are
one to three-year-olds who indulge heavily in aggressive, uncooperative
and aggravating behavior that psychologists call “externalizing”:
whining, screaming, throwing tantrums and objects, and willfully
refusing reasonable requests.

While most of us are hardy souls who can take root and survive
anywhere, a small percentage of the population are children who are
self-destructive, fragile and fickle.  At the beginning of this study,
Marian Bakerman-Kranenburg, a professor of child and family studies,
and her colleagues had screened nearly 2500 kids who fit the
dysfunctional pattern.  With parental support they focused on the 25%
rated highest by their parents in externalizing behaviors.  Research
has shown that toddlers with
especially high rates of these behaviors are likely to become stressed,
confused children who fail academically and socially in school, and
become antisocial and unusually aggressive adults.

But the prof had developed an intervention that she hoped would
change the behaviors of these kids over the long term, rendering them
useful and contributing members of society.  In
an intervention her lab had developed, she or another researcher
visited each of 120 families six times over eight months; filmed the
mother and child in everyday activities, including some requiring
obedience or cooperation; and then edited the film into teachable
moments to show to the mothers. A similar group of high-externalizing
children received no intervention.

To the researchers delight the intervention worked.  In a single
year, kids with externalizing behaviors had reduced their externalizing
score by 16%, in contrast to those who had no intervention, and whose
scores improved ony about 10%, largely the result of age-related

What was of special interest to me was the new interpretation of a
basic and influential idea in psychiatric and social research, the
whole notion of “genetic vulnerability.” Supported by genetic and
chemical studies of the brain, this model essentially rules the
interpretation of behavioral problems.  They are viewed as gene
induced behaviors–not environmental.  If you’ve got these genes and
life treats you ill, you’re more prone to them.  It reminds me of a
film from the 1950’s, The Bad Seed, in which a mother begins to suspect that her adolescent daughter is a heartless killer and she can do nothing about it. 

Recently, however, an alternate hypothesis has emerged that turns
the old one inside out.  The new model proposes that these genes
can create liabilities, but they can also enhance ability and function
in favorable settings.  A lot of the evidence has been mounting for
years, but it was both overlooked and ignored, largely because of the
focus upon dysfunction.  As one psychologist at the University
of London states, “Most work in behavioral genetics has been done by
mental-illness researchers who focus on vulnerability.  They don’t see
the upside because they don’t look for it.” 

The really frustrating piece of that information is that employees
and professionals with a dysfunctional behavior often take on a failure
mentality, viewing their genetic heritage as the determining factor for
their future.  As a result, managing the behavior can become even more
difficult for them.

Years ago, when I accepted “fix’em projects” from firms, the kind of
situation where a person has a lot of potential, but also makes life
miserable for many people, I was asked to work with a young, bright
partner at a top legal firm.  It was one of those situations where he
understood that my task was to fix him, and he’d been worked over by
counselors and psychiatrists for years, so understandably, he wasn’t
looking forward to the process.  Yet, he also recognized that his job
and his future required some changes or he wouldn’t be able to care for
his family. 

Right from the start, I found him an interesting guy, not merely
because he laid it all out, and told me that he didn’t want to work
with me, but that he really had no choice.  The issue, he told me, had
been identified by counselors and psychiatrists as paranoia.  Although
I’m not a licensed psychologist, I have a significant background in
psych, including abnormal psych.  I’d also had long term experience
with a couple parishioners who were so diseased as to be unable to hold
down a job. 

The HR person hadn’t informed me of his psych diagnosis and I was
surprised by the immediate feedback from him.  I took it all in, asked
a few questions, got a list of people to interview before I initiated
coaching, and carried out the task.  What I heard in a nutshell was
that he was a really brilliant lawyer, but he can be very difficult,
exploding and even “screaming” at people (FYI: I tend to view such
characterizations as an attempt to focus my attention, more than actual
reality.  Most professionals are too smart to get caught in that kind
of behavior.) 

After the testing, and interviewing, we sat down for a conversation,
and I fed him the input.  He didn’t disagree, except he thought some of
it was a bit exaggerated.  The next session was basically a “come to
Jesus party” for him and me.  I told him that I had no long-term
experience with “abnormals” and he told me that “just maybe” I could be
useful to him.  We were mutually expressive and candid.  I dug away for
a while asking what he’d been told by the psychiatrists.  After he
reported most of the shit, I commented something to the effect that
that was the “downside,” and wondered about the “upside” to his

“There is no upside to paranoia,” he shot back.  My brain was
working ninety-miles an hour, and I decided on the spot that he was
dead wrong.  He was a corporate lawyer.  His fundamental task was to
keep his clients out of trouble.  I was shooting from the hip.  I
suggested that a paranoid lawyer just might be a damn good lawyer.  He
could be very paranoid in behalf of his clients, and that was liable to
be his real value.  An intriguing conversation ensued.  He’d never
thought about that, never heard that paranoia might be of value, and
didn’t know what to think about the idea.  I countered with another
insight.  Since I’d been a preacher and taught preaching and understood
the psychological make-up of the great preachers, I pointed to a
significant parallel.  Most of the great preachers are slightly
neurotic.  In other words, they see more than is really there and they
report it to their congregation in their sermons.  And, that makes them
damned interesting and persuasive.  It was a home run.  He got it
immediately.  In the coming sessions we discussed the upside of a lot
of diseases. (Since then, we’ve learned about leaders and the
constructive use of narcissism. Narcissism is not always bad.  It just
needs to be managed for the sake of personal success in the

One of the intriguing results, which I didn’t have to work with very
much, was his reputed blow-ups, explosions and difficulties.  The new
frame of reference gave him so much satisfaction, that he devoted
himself to his practice.  He remains a friend, a successful lawyer, and
largely manages his paranoia.  All because we reframed his disease. 
A dysfunctional personality structure, but a career success.

The point of all this is that interventions are very often
reframings of conventional wisdom.  Real growth and opportunity
typically challenge conventional wisdom.  And sometimes that
conventional wisdom is built on a superstructure of professional
training.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the education was divinely

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