Recycling: Five years of April

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month for each of the past five years. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each post I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

April 2014: FX’s “The Americans”: Putting on masks at work —  “On the surface, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are your basic well-scrubbed American couple, living with their two kids, Paige and Henry, in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb right outside of Washington D.C. . . . In reality, however, they are KGB sleeper agents who blend the facade of their everyday lives with serious, often deadly intelligence work. The other day, it hit me that ‘The Americans,’ however unintentionally, is all about putting on masks at work. Elizabeth and Philip must wear these masks almost all the time, even with their kids.”

April 2013: Ethical failure at Rutgers: Abusive coach, bad management, questionable lawyering — “Last week, Rutgers University men’s head basketball coach Mike Rice was fired after videotape of his ongoing verbal and physical abuse toward his players went viral. . . . (I)t’s clear that Rutgers mishandled the situation at every level.”

April 2012: Workplace bullying 2.0: Psychology and mental health — “Of all the major disciplines relevant to studying, preventing, responding to workplace bullying, the fields of industrial/organizational psychology and its emerging sibling, occupational health psychology, rank first in terms of research and practice. . . . Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those seeking information on counseling and therapy for bullying targets.”

April 2011: Getting back at a bad boss — “Let’s say your boss sexually harassed a co-worker to the point where she quit her job to avoid further advances. Is it acceptable for you to retaliate against the boss?”

April 2010: Adversity, resilience, and trust — “Folks who demonstrate the ability to recover from serious challenges and setbacks often gain a special wisdom. It’s as if an authenticity switch was turned on. You can talk to them about real stuff and they get it. This quality, by the way, cuts across demographic, social, and political diversities. By comparison, too many of the overly sheltered are prone to superficial thinking, act in an entitled way, and have a seeming inability to empathize. They are great cheerleaders but can make for bad leaders.”

How to become an instant, overnight Hollywood success story (NOT)

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If you’re a fan of NBC’s hit comedy series The Office (2005-2013), then you’re no doubt familiar with Pam Beesley, the adorable, quiet, but wise and observant receptionist of the bumbling, dysfunctional Dunder-Mufflin paper company. Jenna Fischer played Pam, and The Office was her big break. She was a series regular along with Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, and other members of a superb ensemble cast.

A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an advice piece that Fischer wrote for Actors Info Booth, a career site for aspiring performers. It struck me as being one of the best career advice articles I’ve ever read, a rare blend of humility, encouragement, and honesty, written by someone who hadn’t forgotten what it is like to struggle toward success. I thought about sharing it with readers then, but I didn’t know quite what to do with it. Well, I went back and re-read it the other day, and I realized that it needs no framing as a piece that will benefit and encourage just about anyone who is trying to make it in a given profession or vocation. Here are a few excerpts:

Here is how I got “discovered”. I had been living in LA for about 2 years. A friend wrote a TV script and wanted to do a live stage version as a way of attracting TV producers. He asked me to play a small role. It meant lots of rehearsal for very little stage time and no pay.

…A month later, I was doing a very strange play – a musical adaptation of the movie Nosferatu – at a small theater in Los Angeles. …One night an agent came to see the play and left his card at the box office asking to meet me. He became my first agent.

Now, that sounds easy right? Well, that was all after 2 years of working as a temp, doing every acting gig I could find – usually for no pay, borrowing money to buy a new engine for my car and wearing a pair of shoes with a hole in them because I couldn’t afford anything else.

…Every year I did a little more than the year before. My first 5 years I probably earned between $100 – $2,000 a year from acting. Year 6 brought me some of my biggest success and I only made $8,000 from acting. But, I put a lot more money into my career than that.

…It will be hard to explain your first milestones to friends and family back home. They are waiting to see you on TV or on the big screen. It is hard to explain how a 2nd callback for a job you didn’t land was the highlight of your month and a very valid reason to celebrate.

…This Spring marked my 12 year anniversary in Los Angeles. I didn’t land the part of Pam on The Office until year 8. I’m hardly an overnight success.

Fischer adds that Carell, Wilson, and others of The Office cast also were not instant sensations. I wonder if those struggles contributed to their ability to deliver dead-on comedy reflecting the absurdities of all too many work environments.

In any event, I think many of you will enjoy Ms. Fischer’s full advice article.

 

FX’s “The Americans”: Putting on masks at work

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I’ve been making my way through season 2 of “The Americans,” the excellent FX drama series featuring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a Soviet couple operating as deep cover spies in Washington D.C. during the early 1980s, the decade leading to the end of the Cold War.

On the surface, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are your basic well-scrubbed American couple, living with their two kids, Paige and Henry, in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb right outside of Washington D.C. They work together in a travel agency, and they mix pretty well with the neighbors. In reality, however, they are KGB sleeper agents who blend the facade of their everyday lives with serious, often deadly intelligence work.

The other day, it hit me that “The Americans” is, at least in part, about putting on masks at work. Elizabeth and Philip must wear these masks almost all the time, even with their kids.

In their work, they take on different roles, identities, and personalities. For example, in an ongoing plot line, Philip poses as government operative “Clark,” who deliberately woos and eventually marries a clerk for the FBI, as a way of keeping tabs on the Bureau’s counter-intelligence efforts. In a shorter story line, Elizabeth poses as a shy single woman in Annapolis to manipulate an innocent young Navy enlisted man to obtain the military records of an officer she claims sexually assaulted her.

Elizabeth and Philip have no purely authentic selves in terms of their structured lives. Although they confide in each other and continue to grow closer, even their marriage isn’t real. They live to serve the Motherland.

Granted, most of us cannot relate to the lives of deep cover spies. But many of us have been in jobs where we couldn’t quite be ourselves. In fact, most jobs require putting parts of our personalities on the shelf. And in the cases of jobs done largely for a paycheck, big chunks of our personalities may be buried while at work.

At the same time, we may be expected to show qualities of friendliness, courtesy, or deference, even when we don’t honestly feel them. Organizational psychologists call this “emotional labor,” and it can be taxing. Think about the ticket taker at the movie theatre who cheerfully says “Welcome to Loews” to every customer entering the theatre, or the lawyer who must be deferential toward a judge she doesn’t respect through a long trial.

When I think about those aspects of work, I have even less desire to go into the espionage business! The freedom to be one’s true self, as much as possible, is a blessing. I’m happy to get my spy-versus-spy thrills vicariously, thank you.

Recycling: Portrayals of work and workers on television

Over the years of writing this blog, I’ve devoted a number of posts to the ways in which work and workers are portrayed on television. Here are six past articles that discuss that topic, with snippets from each:

10 of the most emotionally admirable workers on TV (2012)

Tami Taylor, school counselor and principal, Friday Night Lights — It’s highway robbery that Connie Britton didn’t win an Emmy for her portrayal of Tami Taylor in one of the best TV dramas ever. Originally positioned as wife to high school football coach Eric Taylor (played wonderfully by Kyle Chandler), Tami becomes the moral core of the show, exhibiting role model-quality emotional intelligence at work, home, and in the community. Also deserving: Coach Taylor (Chandler).

What does ABC’s “Revenge” teach us about workplace injustice? (2011)

Are fans of “Revenge” frustrated avengers pining for a chance to inflict payback on those who have hurt them? If so, then there are millions of us waiting in the wings.

Fortunately, I don’t think this is the case. It boils down to the difference between exacting revenge — i.e., taking an active part in the retribution — and experiencing schadenfreude, the German loanword defined as deriving joy or satisfaction from another’s misfortune. The former involves planning and participation, while the latter represents an emotional response.

“Mad Men” and the “Dick Van Dyke Show” (2011)

Here are two American television shows portraying early-to-mid 1960s families, featuring a husband who commutes from Long Island to Manhattan every day to a job doing creative, well-compensated work, a beautiful work-at-home housewife, and adorable children.

We’re basically talking about the same programs, several decades apart, right?

Yeah, right.

FOX on the workplace: 24, Glee, and American Idol (2010)

If you want entertaining TV insights into work, school, and the American culture of popularity and success, three shows on the FOX network are worth watching: 24Glee, and American Idol.  I’ve blogged about all three of them previously, but they deserve encore mentions.

“Prime Suspect” (2010)

“Prime Suspect” stars the remarkable Helen Mirren in the lead role as Jane Tennison, who takes over a detective squad in Season 1 and serves in a variety of positions during the roughly 16-year life of the series. Tennison is tough, resilient, vulnerable, and imperfect, and over the years we become witness to her personal and professional successes and struggles.

HBO’s “The Wire” (2009)

Sometimes it’s the dealers, not the cops, who demonstrate the higher level of organizational intelligence.  Stringer Bell takes continuing education classes in business management, and when he gathers together his lieutenants, he runs the proceedings like a good board meeting.

Working Notes: Kennemer on firing bad bosses, Rutgers fires an abusive coach, and more

Some interesting items that may catch your fancy:

1. 7 Good Reasons to Fire a Bad Boss — Kevin Kennemer of The People Group cites seven reasons why bad bosses should be terminated. Here’s No. 6:

Bad bosses create toxic work environments, jeopardize employee health. Employees who are stuck working for a bad boss are more susceptible to chronic stress, depression, anxiety, strokes and heart attacks.

Kevin is an HR guy who gets it: Bad bosses are bad for business. The ones who can’t or won’t change should be shown the door. It’s about productivity and dignity.

2. Rutgers fires head men’s basketball coach — Public outcry basically forced Rutgers University to terminate basketball coach Mike Rice when videotape documenting his repeated verbally and physically abusive treatment of players during practices went viral. ESPN reports:

Rutgers fired basketball coach Mike Rice on Wednesday after a videotape aired showing him shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at players and using gay slurs during practice.

The videotape, broadcast Tuesday on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” prompted sharp criticism from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and the head of the New Jersey Assembly called for Rice to be fired.

With mounting criticism on a state and national level, the school relieved Rice of his duties after three largely unsuccessful seasons at the Big East school. There will be a national search to replace him.

Rutgers does not come out looking good on this one. It imposed only light discipline on Rice when these events first became known several months ago. Now there’s talk of relieving the Athletic Director and even the university President.

3. Medical intern not covered by Wisconsin whistle blower law — The state’s Court of Appeals held that an unpaid medical intern was not protected by a whistle blower law for workers in healthcare fields. Bruce Vielmetti reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

A psychologist who was fired after reporting ethical breaches at the Medical College of Wisconsin has no claim for unlawful retaliation because she was an unpaid intern, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

But in a sharp dissent, one judge called the decision Orwellian and that “Sadly …exiles health-care interns beyond the pale of the statute’s protection even though they may have critical information to safeguard
patients.”

H/t to Intern Labor Rights for providing yet another reason to support the emerging movement against unpaid internships.

4. Paula Parnagian on workplace bullying and the Healthy Workplace Bill — Paula Parnagian, an organizational consultant and principal of World View Services, wrote a terrific piece for NEHRA Insights, the magazine of the Northeast Human Resources Association.

Here she quotes attorney Ellen Cobb of The Isoceles Group, an international consulting firm and author of Bullying, Violence, Harassment, Discrimination and Stress: Emerging Workplace Health and Safety Issues (2012), a comprehensive global summary of relevant laws:

Not that long ago, sexual harassment was accepted as part of what happened in the workplace. It isn’t anymore — it still occurs, but less, and public perception has changed. The view of bullying may well be on this course.

5. APA launches Center for Organizational Excellence — The American Psychological Association has created a new Center for Organizational Excellence, an outgrowth of its popular Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program (PHWP).  Dr. David Ballard, founder of the PHWP, is the founding Center director. Here’s a brief description from the Center’s website:

The American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence works to enhance the functioning of individuals, groups, organizations and communities through the application of psychology to a broad range of workplace issues.

This is an exciting initiative. I’ll be writing more about the Center’s work in future posts.

6. NPR gives thumb up to the new “Mad Men” season — “Mad Men,” the AMC drama set in the high stakes advertising game of 1960s Manhattan, isn’t just about work (not by a longshot), but it sure does give us a fascinating interpretation of the business world back in the day. If you want to get the full story, you need to start from Season 1 and go from there. But for loyal viewers, NPR’s David Bianculli tells us that Season 6 has been worth waiting for:

Now we come to the spring TV season — which, as in nature, is a time to rejoice in the spirit of rebirth. . . . And best of all, there’s AMC’s Mad Men,which begins Season 6 on Sunday, delivering all the pleasures that today’s most ambitious drama series can bring.

10 of the most emotionally admirable workers on TV

Okay, time for a little balance: After Monday’s post summarizing TDYLF‘s worst big-screen employers ever, I thought I’d weigh in with my listing of 10 of the most emotionally admirable workers on the small screen.  Here they are:

Tami Taylor, school counselor and principal, Friday Night Lights — It’s highway robbery that Connie Britton didn’t win an Emmy for her portrayal of Tami Taylor in one of the best TV dramas ever. Originally positioned as wife to high school football coach Eric Taylor (played wonderfully by Kyle Chandler), Tami becomes the moral core of the show, exhibiting role model-quality emotional intelligence at work, home, and in the community. Also deserving: Coach Taylor (Chandler).

Jean Luc Picard, starship captain, Star Trek: The Next Generation — Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, is cool under fire, a man of action and intellect, and as kindhearted as a Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise can afford to be. He’s an excellent leader who maximizes and appreciates the talents of the crew serving with him.

Jane Tennison, police detective and superintendent, Prime Suspect — Yup, Tennison is a mess. She drinks too much and her personal life is in shambles. But she’s managed to retain her dignity while fighting her way up the ladder in this mean, male-dominated world of law enforcement. She is, above all, extraordinarily determined and resilient. Helen Mirren is brilliant in this role.

John Bates, valet, Downton Abbey —  Mr. Bates brings some mysterious personal baggage and an injury that affects his ability to walk (for which he is bullied by other staff) to his work as valet to Lord of the Manor. Hat’s off to Brendan Coyle for giving his character an intensely private sense of dignity. Also deserving: Mrs. Hughes, housekeeper (Phyllis Logan).

Colleen McMurphy, nurse, China Beach — In her defining breakout role, Dana Delany portrays a young nurse serving in an American medical unit during the heart of the Vietnam War. McMurphy is the heart and soul of a deservedly Emmy-winning drama, demonstrating courage, sensitivity, and empathy amidst suffering and death. It’s a shame that China Beach is not yet out on DVD.

Cedric Daniels, police commander, The Wire — Chief Daniels, played by Lance Reddick, must juggle a group of frequently rogue officers, the racial politics of Baltimore, a cutthroat and corrupt government bureaucracy, and a secret or two about his own past. He’s the calm in the storm of this remarkable television series.

Andy Taylor, town sheriff, The Andy Griffith Show — While playing straight man to his lovably bumbling deputy Barney Fife (the brilliant Don Knotts), sheriff Andy Taylor continually mixes a homespun brand of human understanding and kindness. Watch a few episodes on cable or Netflix. You’ll yearn for more folks like Sheriff Taylor in today’s society.

C.J. Cregg, presidential press secretary and chief of staff, The West Wing — Allison Janney created one of the strongest characters among this excellent ensemble cast. Tough and kind, steely and vulnerable, idealistic yet politically savvy — and always very, very smart.  Also deserving: Leo McGarry, presidential chief of staff (John Spencer); and Congressman and presidential candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits).

Peggy Olson, advertising copywriter, Mad Men — She started as a secretary and moved up to a copywriter position at a New York ad agency. What’s next for this mousy but ambitious, outer borough striver — played expertly by Elizabeth Moss — who doesn’t yet understand what her mid-1960s struggles will mean to other women? Also deserving: Joan Harris, office administrator (Christina Hendricks).

Frank Furillo, police commander, Hill Street Blues — Daniel J. Travanti gave a deliberative, quietly on the edge persona to Captain Furillo, in this pioneering TV drama of the 1980s that reset the bar very high for cop shows to come. Alas, only the first two seasons are available on DVD.

Observations

I confess! I like cop shows, as long-time readers of this blog may have picked up. They typically are set in dysfunctional work environments, beset by politics, corruption, personal rivalries, and overheated emotions. Great stuff.

Most of the female characters are trying to succeed in a male dominated world, and their emotional intelligence often is exhibited in how they navigate that environment.

By contrast, many of the male characters on this list are relatively comfortable in their leadership roles.

It’s a pretty white group, isn’t it? I’ll punt on whether that says more about my viewing habits or the casting practices of television producers.

There’s only one comedy on the list, The Andy Griffith Show. Is it that sitcoms and emotionally intelligent characters don’t necessarily mix?

What does ABC’s “Revenge” teach us about workplace injustice?

I’ve never been a fan of soap operas, but a very soapy new primetime drama, ABC’s “Revenge,” has been a lock on my DVR this fall.

About “Revenge”

“Revenge” is the title, philosophy, and practice of this weekly guilty pleasure. The story features a young woman, Emily Thorne (played by Emily VanCamp), who mysteriously appears in the Hamptons, New York’s refuge for the ultra wealthy.

Emily is not who she says she is. She’s really Amanda Clarke, and years ago, when Amanda was still a girl, her rich, cutthroat neighbors framed her father for a horrific act of terrorism and essentially destroyed their lives. Emily/Amanda now has returned home to exact revenge on them, in brutally cool and calculated ways. (“Revenge” is said to be loosely patterned after Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, but believe me, you don’t have to be familiar with the book to get into the show!)

Each new episode features intrigue, manipulation, and carefully planned acts of payback. It also highlights an ongoing cat fight, nay, death battle of the tigresses, between Emily and leading Hamptons socialite Victoria Grayson (played by Madeleine Stowe), a key operative in her father’s disgrace and demise.

This could be a giant recipe for an early series cancellation but for the pitch perfect performances by the lead actresses. VanCamp is the ideal cold-blooded avenger masquerading as the sharp, pretty, sweetheart-next-door. Stowe pulls off her Ice Queen of the Hamptons role — one that easily could become a caricature in the hands of a less-gifted performer — with just the right touch. And when Emily and Victoria are in the same room, well, if looks could kill…

Revenge vs. schadenfreude

Are fans of “Revenge” frustrated avengers pining for a chance to inflict payback on those who have hurt them? If so, then there are millions of us waiting in the wings.

Fortunately, I don’t think this is the case. It boils down to the difference between exacting revenge — i.e., taking an active part in the retribution — and experiencing schadenfreude, the German loanword defined as deriving joy or satisfaction from another’s misfortune. The former involves planning and participation, while the latter represents an emotional response.

For some, a successful act of revenge can result in schadenfreude. For others, schadenfreude is more comfortably experienced as the result of a misfortune visited upon someone by another party or initiative.

I believe that most viewers enjoy “Revenge” because it allows us to revel in a fictional version of the latter variety. After all, cutting through the soap, “Revenge” reminds us that plotting real-life payback easily becomes an all-consuming and blackhearted passion. It often requires the same overheated emotion as the act that inspired it, not to mention a heckuva lot of care and attention to detail if one does not want to get caught.

Furthermore, the vast majority recognize that carrying an unyielding need for vengeance can be a dark, heavy, and unhealthy burden. Even if we struggle to forgive our trespassers, we nevertheless understand the personal costs of devoting ourselves to visiting retribution upon them.

And yet, “Revenge” may satisfy some inner craving for schadenfreude, which allows us to eat our cake but not have to answer for the calories. When one of Emily’s brilliantly designed acts of payback succeeds, it’s hard not to say, hah hah, gotcha!

Workplace revenge fantasies

No doubt that when some viewers are relishing Emily’s latest success, they’re thinking about specific bosses or co-workers who treated them poorly or unfairly.

Indeed, some of the “bad boss” books that I’ve paged through over the years are full of revenge fantasies, imagined and realized. People construct, and occasionally act out, these fantasies because they lack the power to use organizational resources to make things right. And when institutions do not embrace fairness and accountability, those on the receiving end of perceived injustices are left to their own devices and coping skills.

These are no trifling concerns, as I hope this blog has demonstrated. Perceptions of organizational justice impact productivity and individual well-being. Careers, livelihoods, and paychecks are at stake, not to mention personal health and dignity.

“Revenge” doesn’t get into the institutional ripple effects; it’s all personal, either in-your-face or behind-your-back. Ultimately, it isn’t psychologically deep enough to teach us anything more profound than the costs of being obsessed with retribution. But that in itself is a valuable lesson, and it’s delivered in marvelously entertaining fashion to boot.

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Go here to watch full episodes of “Revenge.”

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