A Highly Dysfunctional Person, 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 self-control. What was of special interest to me was a 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. 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 dysfunctional behaviors 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 disease.  “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 highly 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.One of the intriguing results, which I didn’t have to discuss, 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 highly dysfunctional personality, 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 inspired.
Function VBGetSwfVer(i)
on error resume next
Dim swControl, swVersion
swVersion = 0
set swControl = CreateObject(“ShockwaveFlash.ShockwaveFlash.” + CStr(i))
if (IsObject(swControl)) then
swVersion = swControl.GetVariable(“$version”)
end if
VBGetSwfVer = swVersion
End Function

On Error Resume Next
Sub flashObj_FSCommand(ByVal command, ByVal args)
Call onFSCommand(command, args)
End Sub

// By use of this code snippet, I agree to the Brightcove Publisher T and C
// found at http://corp.brightcove.com/legal/terms_publisher.cfm.

var config = new Array();

/*
* feel free to edit these configurations
* to modify the player experience
*/
config[“videoId”] = 47048967001; //the default video loaded into the player
config[“videoRef”] = null; //the default video loaded into the player by ref id specified in console
config[“lineupId”] = null; //the default lineup loaded into the player
config[“playerTag”] = null; //player tag used for identifying this page in brightcove reporting
config[“autoStart”] = false; //tells the player to start playing video on load
config[“preloadBackColor”] = “#FFFFFF”; //background color while loading the player

/*
* set the player’s size using the parameters below
* to make this player dynamically resizable, set the width and height as a percentage
*/
config[“width”] = 486;
config[“height”] = 412;

/* do not edit these config items */
config[“playerId”] = 42953000001;

createExperience(config, 8);

On Error Resume Next
Sub flashObj0_FSCommand(ByVal command, ByVal args)
Call onFSCommand(command, args)
End Sub

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