Does “Mindhunter” yields insights for the workplace anti-bullying movement?

Between enjoying some holiday downtime and catching a mild cold, I devoted myself to some quality binge viewing during the past couple of weeks. Among the programs I galloped through was Season 1 of “Mindhunter.” This Netflix drama, set in the late 1970s, and features two FBI agents (Holden Ford, played by Jonathan Groff; Bill Tench, played by Holt McCallany) and a forensic psychology professor (Wendy Carr, played by Ann Torv) who commit themselves to understanding the psychology of mass murderers and serial killers. It’s based loosely on the real-life pioneering work of FBI agents John Douglas and William Ressler and Boston College professor Ann Wolbert Burgess.

Although “Mindhunter” does not re-create in detail the gruesome crimes of the perpetrators being studied and interviewed, this series is not for the squeamish. It’s dark, profane, and at times R-rated. The deep conversations with convicted killers are particularly intense.

“Mindhunter” is also a fascinating narrative of early efforts to understand the minds and behaviors of those who have committed horrific crimes, as well as the social contexts that helped to make them what they are. It has a very intellectual side. For example, the work of sociologists Emile Durkheim and Erving Goffman enter the discussions between the main characters. The series also depicts the skepticism of “old boy” law enforcement officers who are deeply skeptical of the value of researching and interviewing these criminals. 

At various points during the 10-episode first season, I found myself asking whether this series yields any insights for those who are involved in the workplace anti-bullying movement. Here are some of the thoughts that came to mind:

  • In both contexts, research matters. It gives us a base of understanding that enables us to talk about prevention and response. However, unlike the FBI agents who visit prisons to talk to convicted murderers, we don’t have a lot of interview access to workplace abusers. If alleged abusers are managers or executives, then we have virtually no access to them. This is why so much of the research on bullying and mobbing at work is based on the experiences and perceptions of targeted workers.
  • Like the early work to understand serial killers, initial efforts to study and understand workplace bullying and mobbing were greeted with some skepticism and even ridicule. I can recall many quizzical looks and responses from 15-20 years ago, when I first started investigating, researching, and writing about workplace bullying.
  • Of course, even the worst workplace abuse rarely rises to the level of direct, violent aggression displayed by convicted killers. However, the conscience-free, eliminationist mindset that I’ve discussed in past blog pieces (e.g., here and here) is definitely present in both settings. Psychopathy, sociopathy, and severe narcissism are found in many repeat murderers and severe workplace abusers alike. The same goes for systemic influences on individual abusive behavior.
  • Just as the “Mindhunter” researchers sometimes have to think like the murderers they’re studying in order to gain understanding, so do workplace bullying and mobbing researchers have to get into the heads of workplace abusers. Also, at times I find myself telling those who are trying to understand the actions of their workplace tormenters to “think like a sociopath.” Sadly, it can be a very clarifying exercise.


Themes of work and employment in “The Americans”

FX’s “The Americans,” the one-hour drama series featuring a husband-and-wife team as deep-cover Soviet spies operating out of a Washington D.C. suburb during the 1980s, came to the close of its superb six-year run last Wednesday.

If you’re unfamiliar with “The Americans,” here’s the brief rundown: On the surface, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings are juggling everyday suburban life, raising their two kids (Paige and Henry), and managing a travel agency. However, they are really Soviet plants, deeply involved in espionage and intelligence activities, which often require them to assume new identities in order to gather information and fulfill mission directives. To make things more complicated, their new neighbor across the street is Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent who does intelligence work. The relationships between the Jennings and Beeman families help to frame the entire series.

Indeed, “The Americans” is very much about relationships, however fraught with Cold War intrigue. And as I’ve written before, it’s also a show about managing one’s work life, under the most trying of circumstances. I’d like to build on that theme here, while keeping spoilers down to a minimum!

Raising their games

As I recall, early reviewers regarded “The Americans” as a very good cable drama, but most stopped short of tagging it as brilliant. However, it would finish as one of the most widely hailed series on TV today. Some pundits are rightly calling it one of the best ever on the small screen.

As I see it, this evolution in the show’s reviews goes much beyond its discovery by a more appreciative audience. Rather, from season to season we become witnesses to everyone raising their games, including the cast, directors, producers, writers, and crew. This final season, in particular, had an edge-of-your-seat genius to it. For some time it was known that this would be the show’s last run, and the ability to work within that timeframe paid off completely.

Call this a lesson in how to go from good to great.

Creating art

Last week’s episode ranks as one of the best series finales ever — perhaps the best in terms of beautifully resolving (or not resolving) multiple story arcs — and I’m guessing that it will be studied in acting and film school classes for years to come.

In particular, the critics have already gone gaga over the parking garage face-off scene featuring Philip, Elizabeth, Paige, and Stan. Yeah, it was that good. If there’s such a thing as an Emmy award for a single scene, then this gets it, hands down.

As for Rhys, Russell, and Emmerich, please give them Emmys for their overall performances this season.

Love at work

Romance between co-workers can be full of risks, challenges, and dramas. So it was with Rhys and Russell, on screen and off. Soviet intelligence authorities paired Philip and Elizabeth as a couple before they were planted in the U.S.; this was an arranged marriage purely for purposes of spycraft. They grew into love during the course of their working relationship.

Offscreen, Rhys and Russell became a couple too, and they remain together. This is a common occurrence in Hollywood, but one made more interesting because of the evolving relationship between Philip and Elizabeth.

From nostalgia to immersion

Especially for late Boomers and early Gen Xers, “The Americans” grabs us from the start by playing to our nostalgia for the 80s. You have the 80s music, clothing, hairdos, cars, gadgetry, and all that stuff.

To me it seemed a little over the top at first. But whether it was a crass strategy to reel us in via constant product placement or a deliberate use of commercial and cultural markers to establish the historical context, it did draw us back to those years. Once there, the nostalgic button-pushing would soon give way to the rich, ongoing drama and developing storylines. 

Masks at work

“The Americans” is about putting on masks at work, literally and figuratively. Here’s what I wrote about that aspect of the show four years ago:

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. . . . Elizabeth and Philip have no purely authentic selves in terms of their structured lives.

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.

Suffice it to say that Philip and Elizabeth expended more emotional labor than any ten regular people could provide in their aggregate lifetimes!

Moral and ethical decision making

With the Jennings, especially ice-in-her-veins Elizabeth, the moral and ethical code boils down easily to the ends justifying the means. The possibility of violence, of course, is an ongoing presence in many of the show’s story arcs, and the show has piled up a lot of dead bodies, often with ruthless dispatch.  But what sets “The Americans” apart are the many ruses, lies, and deceptions that constitute enormous interpersonal abuses, all in the name of duty. Good, decent people are swept into the web and changed forever.

Still, is this really any different from a well-paid CEO saying that we regretfully had to cut jobs of longtime employees to ensure the financial health of the company, when in reality the company simply chose to put shareholder earnings first? And don’t virulent displays of workplace bullying, mobbing, gaslighting, and harassment mirror the heartless psychological cruelties of Philip and Elizabeth?

Work-life balance

Folks, if you want a prime example of the obliteration of work-life balance, then Elizabeth and Philip serve it up grandly! Put simply, they have no balance. Almost everything is about duty and responsibility. For both, the job often comes first, followed by parenting. I don’t know if I can recall a single genuine vacation or trip, or even a movie and dinner, that didn’t involve their spy work.

Of course, the opportunity to make a difference sometimes requires personal sacrifices, including the loss of what we might call free time. With the Jennings, however, the sacrifices increasingly reach into their souls. 

Institutions as employers

Throughout the series, the relationships of individuals to larger institutions are significant.

Elizabeth and Philip seemingly have leeway in how they fulfill their orders, but they and other Soviet operatives must answer to their superiors in Moscow. In the land of the free, Stan, too, has wiggle room as an agent, but he must answer to the vertical, bureaucratic structure of the FBI.

Ultimately we have two sharply contrasting political ideologies, but when it comes to employment, top-down power relationships often prevail under both.

Politics and work

The Jennings are driven by political ideology, especially Elizabeth, whose commitment to the Soviet ideal remains strong through the heart of the series. Philip’s wavering has consequences for his work and their relationship.

In America, the business, public, and non-profit sectors certainly have their own true believers who bring a sense of mission to their jobs, grounded in ideological commitments. “The Americans” invites us to think hard about how rigid political and social beliefs can inform what we do for living, how we go about it, and the limitations of working in this mode.

Start at the beginning

If you haven’t tried “The Americans,” then the only way to do so is from the beginning. To be honest, I wasn’t immediately addicted to this show. As I suggested above, I think it started out as a very good drama before it grew into something spectacular. It took me a while to get sucked into its world, but once that happened, I was hooked for good.

Given that television binge-watching tastes are so individual, I won’t presume that “The Americans” is for all readers here. But if you want to give it a try, then it’s available on various streaming platforms and season DVDs, and I’m sure a series box set is in the works, too.


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)


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


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

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.

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