Wilbur 5 by uBUFU4r


									Disclaimer:             In what follows, any sweeping generalizations made about whole
classes of people, such as corporate trainers, should be taken with the requisite grain of salt.
In particular, any derogatory remarks should be read for their amusement value only. Clearly,
such remarks have no direct personal relevance to the discerning readers of this tale.

             Chronicle 5 : Fear and Loathing in New Jersey

Was I bitter? Damn straight I was bitter! Outraged would be more like
it. Here it was, lunchtime on my 30th birthday, and what was I doing?
Hunched in a phone booth in the lobby of a Rama-shera-hilto-day Inn
in Paramus, New Jersey, willing my good buddy Dr Jim to pick up his
phone so that I could score some drugs. Otherwise, I wasn’t going to
make it through lunch, let alone survive the afternoon.

“Come on…. Pick up … pick up …. Pleeaaase, dear God, let him pick

No luck. This was serious. Because I knew that, if I had to re-enter the
belly of the beast, conveniently located in the hotel’s Parsippany
Room, without medication, someone was going to get hurt. And that I
would likely be out of a job before day’s end. Not that that seemed like
such a bad thing. The possibility that I might end up being charged
with criminal assault was something to worry about, however.

“Come on …. We’re expected to start up again at 1:00….”
“Hello. Merck, Sharp and Dohme, this is Dr. C. How can I help you?”

Oh thank God! Trying not to babble, I explained the situation, and
what it was that I needed. About 30 seconds elapsed, as I listened to
him convulse with hysterical glee. But, God bless him, like a true
friend, he came through. From Rahway to Paramus is about a half-
hour. Sure enough, about 1:15, there’s a knock at the portal to hell,
and a hotel flunky, apologizing profusely for the interruption, informs
the group inside that someone at the reception desk is enquiring for
me and that it’s urgent.

Trying not to smirk, I excuse myself and leave. It’s clear from the
expression on Heather’s face that she thinks I’ve manufactured some
kind of phony emergency, and that I won’t be back. Naturally, this is
an option which I had considered, but as she shoots me the mother of
all dirty looks, I thank my lucky stars that I hadn’t gone along with
Nadine’s suggested escape plan.
Five minutes later, I’m back in hell, physically at any rate. But now I
am feeling greatly comforted by Dr Jim’s reassurance that the beta-
blocker I’ve just gulped down will start to exert its calming effect
“within the half-hour”. He had also promised that within an hour, I
should expect to attain a state of beatific calm that would make the
Dalai Lama jealous. Which I did, though it took more like 90 minutes
(beta-blockers are known to exhibit variable absorption kinetics,
whatcha gonna do?).

But perhaps you’re wondering what precipitated this faintly distasteful
little crisis. Weakness of character? Obviously, I would like to think
not. I would argue that my panic resulted from provocation of the
most extreme kind, that I had been driven to crisis point only after
suffering through a morning of excessive mental torment, being
subjected to punishments that were both cruel and unusual.

Let’s back up. How could the events of any one morning be so horrible
as to have me needing beta-blockers by lunchtime? You’d think that,
after three months, I would have developed a certain amount of
resistance to having my buttons pushed. I had even forced myself to
listen to a cassette of soothing New Age pablum while driving to the
hotel that morning, all the while muttering to myself “I will not lose
my cool…. I will not lose my cool …. I will not allow Wilbur the
satisfaction of seeing me lose my cool… this is finite … besides, how
bad can it be?”
Years later, with the benefit of several such corporate exercises in
{mission-statement developing, reengineering, bonding, leadership
training, focusing on excellence, sick sigma/quality circles, daring to be
great, high-performance team-building, time-wasting – take your
pick} under my belt, I have evolved a number of coping strategies, the
most useful of which I will pass on here. The unifying theme is “don’t
draw attention to yourself”. (The training might be useful, of course,
in which case these coping strategies won’t be necessary)

      Bring plenty of reading material, but make sure it’s the kind that
       can be read unobtrusively (preferably by hiding it among
       whatever “course materials” are provided).
      If given a choice, sit about two rows from the back. Under no
       circumstances sit up front, or on an aisle position that makes it
       easy for roaming facilitators to engage you.
      Don’t be a smarty-pants. No matter how idiotic the drivel that is
       being peddled, don’t feel the need to point this out. Those who
       get it already know, and those who don’t are unlikely to benefit
       from any commentary you might feel impelled to provide.
       Remember the adage about teaching a pig to sing.
      If having a hard time with the preceding item, consider (a)
       medication and/or (b) thinking of the facilitator as being slightly
       retarded. Then remember what your mother told you about how
       to treat people less fortunate than you. (At this point, I’d like to
       remind everyone of the disclaimer with which I started this
      Participate cheerfully, but not enthusiastically, to the extent
       required, and no more.
      Never, ever, allow yourself to be sucked in to some kind of
       substantial argument with the facilitator. If you do, you will
       invariably say something regrettable, emerge looking petty and
       mean-spirited, thereby providing the facilitator with (probably
       unwarranted) validation. You will also forfeit your ability to fly
       under the radar for whatever remains of the session.

The last point is probably most relevant for those who, like myself,
have difficulty with authority figures; however, it is a failure to take it
to heart until relatively late in my career that has gotten me in most
trouble over the years. Not the constructive kind of trouble either, just
the pain-in-the-ass kind. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, it was
failure (inability?) to pay heed to the last point which caused things to
go south that morning in the Parsippany Room.
8:40 a.m.

There we sit, in the Parsippany Room. We’ve been caffeinated,
beveraged with refreshing juice drinks, satiated with superior
breakfast pastries; we’re ready to roll. Tables are arranged to form a
U-shape, around which we are seated, listening to our facilitator,
whom I’ll call Father Damian, share some of his selected life
experiences to date. Father D. appears to be in his late forties. In a
former life, he sought spiritual fulfilment as a Jesuit priest; when that
failed to work out, for reasons unspecified, he spent a number of years
teaching high school, then made his way into the corporate training
field. He’s been doing training, for various corporations, for the past
seven years. For reasons both petty and embarrassing, I already hate
his guts.

Petty? The bastard’s been talking for only about three minutes, and it’s
already clear we’re in for two long days of one irritating sports
metaphor after another. Corporate America’s love affair with the
poorly deployed sports analogy was, and remains, one of my pet
peeves. Why don’t these bastards just get badges printed up: “I’m a
smug, jock asshole, in a culture which favors smug, jock asshole-dom,
and I’m going to remind you of that fact about once every two minutes
each and every time we interact. Furthermore, the rules of the game
say that you can’t do a damned thing about it”.

Embarrassing? For God’s sake, the dude is not just an ex-priest, he’s a
former freaking Jesuit. You know, a soldier in God’s army? Apparently,
in his case, a renegade soldier in God’s army. To understand the full
measure of my immediate antipathy I need to provide a little
autobiographical detail here. Namely, that during my final two years in
high school, of the three (mandatory) religious doctrine classes per
week, I didn’t once make it all the way through without being thrown
out for “insubordination” (a strange, futile tango with the bizarrely
controlling teacher at the time, which made a little more sense when I
later heard that he left the priesthood six months after we graduated).

It gets worse. Throughout his little intro, the single word that has
come up over and over again is “coach”. Apparently, this is no
accident. After ten minutes, when he finally (reluctantly) stops talking
about himself, and it’s our turn, what are asked to do? Explain who we
are, and what our job is? Nope. We are asked to share with the group
who, alive or dead, do we think of as the “greatest coach of all time”
and why. This is how I finally learn that Vince Lombardi is not just the
name of a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Reactions are, for the most part, predictable. We go around the table.
The first two are completely in the ball park.
“Bear Bryant” .
“Vince Lombardi”.
“My high school math teacher”.
“Bear Bryant”.
My turn. All I have to do is come up with a nice, safe choice. Someone
like, say, Dean Smith. Just say it. You like Dean Smith. Now is not the
time to be adventurous. Just say it, already. But, of course, I couldn’t
bring myself to give him the satisfaction. So instead, I answer:
(Idiot! Socrates was put to death, for crying out loud! What kind of
message are you trying to get across? Oh, Lord, just pass the
hemlock, already…).
“Jesus Christ”. This, from Heather, as an answer, not an interjection.
My misgivings at having answered “Socrates” are heightened, as we
finally come to Wilbur, who delivers his answer, with a sneer:

The silence is deafening.

As I sit, pondering the fact that Wilbur has brazenly chosen as the
‘coach he would most like to emulate’ someone whose main claim to
fame was conspiring with others to kill his boss, and then helping to
carry out the assassination, the faces of my colleagues make an
interesting study. Heather and Frank look genuinely shocked. Robert
and Maria have an air of slight puzzlement – you can almost see the
thought bubbles “Which one was Brutus again?”. Bonnie can barely
stop herself from laughing out loud. Wilbur just leans back in his chair,
happy to have derailed the discussion, even if just for a moment.

Father Damian appears briefly disconcerted, but recovers, almost
immediately. To his credit, he is not silly enough to invite Wilbur to
expand on his choice. Instead he goes back to Frank, the first person
called upon, and invites him to say what about Bear Bryant makes him
a worthy choice. There follows a discussion of excruciating banality,
ostensibly about the characteristics that make someone a good leader.
What prevents it from being a complete snoozefest is watching Father
Damian bob and weave, as he desperately tries to avoid giving Wilbur
a chance to speak. It’s a losing battle, of course, and eventually he
can ignore Wilbur, who has his hand in the air, no longer.
So for the last ten minutes before we break for coffee, we are treated
to Wilbur’s views on various historical figures. Brutus is admirable for
“bringing about the end of a tyrannical leader, who ruled in despotic
fashion, and obviously deserved his fate”. Other historical figures
admired by Wilbur include Guy Fawkes, Gavrilo Prinzip (whom he
cannot, however, recall by name), and Rasputin who, according to
Wilbur, was responsible for killing the Romanovs. When informed that
this is not the case, he appears quite disappointed. In exasperation,
Father D finally asks Wilbur to name an inspiring leader who is
acclaimed for something other than assassination. Wilbur’s answer
“the guy who founded A.A.” brings the discussion to a halt, as nobody
is particularly anxious to dig deeper (in all of his misbehavior, there
had never been any sign of a possible problem with alcohol or
substance abuse, so it wasn’t clear what was behind it). Fr. Damian
and Heather exchange little semaphore signs, and he gives us a 20-
minute break for coffee. I look at my watch. Incredibly, it’s not even
ten o’clock yet.

Father Damian and Heather go into a major huddle at the back of the
room, Wilbur and the others hit the pastries again, and I go outside to
clear my head. I’m trying to figure out how pissed off I’m entitled to
be. It seems to me that Wilbur has, once again, skillfully pushed the
behavioral envelope to the exact limit of non-cooperative hostility that
he can get away with. Yet, deep down, at some level, I actually had to
admire his nomination of Brutus. What other choice could have been
as effective in conveying his passive-aggressive hostility, with that
slight undertone of menace? When I found myself chuckling at
Wilbur’s skill in playing his game, to go back in and feign total outrage
didn’t seem like a viable option. So I figured I’d let this one go.

Back in the meeting room, it became evident that Heather, for one,
felt differently. Wilbur’s little gambit had obviously pressed one of her
buttons and she was furious. By now, I was well-used to witnessing
the type of incoherent rage that Wilbur could provoke in others; she
just needed to get it out of her system.

10:15: The week before the meeting, we’d each had our color
analysis done. Time to find out the results!

Let the bonding begin!
As we got ourselves settled again, I glanced over at the refreshment
table . Where, two minutes earlier, there had been the usual profusion
of bagels, pastries, lox, and assorted fruit, there remained only a
barren wasteland. I started to giggle. Old habits die hard.

Some definitions:

Lysis:                 a process of disintegration or dilution; breakdown of
                       cells by enzymes toxic to the cell wall

Persona:               the narrator of (or a character in) a literary work,
                       sometimes identified with the author.

Personalysis:          gradual breakdown of the narrator, following
                       cumulative exposure to toxic enzymes

PERSONALYSIS: A scientific management tool that provides a unique
                       assessment of your personality. It provides insights
                       into how people think, how they solve problems, how
                       they deal with others, and how they cope under
                       stress. Your Personalysis experience begins with a
                       simple, 15-minute, self-administered questionnaire.
                       Each Report includes an easy-to-use snapshot of
                       your personality called a Colorgraph.

Actually, you get three easy-to-use snapshots, one corresponding to
your behavior under “normal” conditions, one corresponding to the
way you think you should behave, and one which describes your
behavior under stress (your inner child, in tantrum mode, perhaps?)

Anyone who is interested in a more detailed account can find
information at the company website: www.personalysis.com

I have no great love for the Personalysis test; neither do I loathe it. At
the time it seemed reasonably non-intrusive, and my subsequent
experience suggests that it is fairly representative of its class, namely
the kind of test that corporations use as a tool in team-building
exercises. The resultant summary of key aspects of personality is
reminiscent of that obtained from Myers-Briggs testing, or from an

Not that it's specifically germane to the story, but if you want to see examples of
Colorgraphs, there are two at: http://gaelstat.com/wilbur.aspx
We had each received the questionnaire to fill out a week earlier.
Basically, it consists of a number of ‘forced choice’ questions in which
one states a preference among the options presented. The results are
distilled into a set of four scores, each representing a particular
dimension of personality. For graphing purposes, each dimension is
associated with a color – an over-simplified version of the
correspondence is:

      Red: focuses on results , getting things done
      Yellow: focuses on people, maintaining good relationships
      Green: focuses on order, control, doing things ‘by the book’
      Blue: data-driven, deliberative, dislikes acting on partial

The key thing is that the scores, when added across all four
dimensions, must add to 12, so that a really high score (5, say) on one
dimension can only be obtained at the expense of at least one other
dimension. If the test is to be believed at all, it is only as a measure of
the relative importance of the different components in contributing to
one’s behavior.

Again, the specific details of the particular scoring system are not
really what’s important. As with any personality test, its utility is
largely determined by how it is deployed – how the results are
communicated and interpreted, and the use to which they are put.
It wasn’t the test results that bothered me. It was how they were used
that started my fusion reaction.

While completing the questionnaire I had read, but not paid too much
attention to, the ‘standard disclaimer’ about confidentiality of test
results. I had just reassured myself that it was indeed the standard
disclaimer. In particular it said that, while my test scores would join
those of myriad other test-takers in the huge corporate database, and
might be included with those of other group members in calculating
summary statistics for groups of interest, my anonymity would be
protected, and that I would be the only person in my workplace who
would have access to my individual scores. An outright falsehood, as it
turned out.

Father Damian starts in with an explanation of the scoring, how to
interpret the colorgraphs, and all that good stuff. Given that his
audience is comprised mainly of statisticians, this takes longer than he
has bargained for. But eventually, the big moment arrives, and with all
the solemnity of a renegade priest delivering the Eucharist to
Christians in the catacombs, he hands each of us an envelope
containing our very own, individualized, PERSONALYSIS Colorgraph.
Silence descends upon the room, as everyone struggles to appreciate
each chromatic nuance.

Father Damian does the helpful hovering facilitator thing, fielding
people’s questions about their results for a few minutes, then he
bounds to the front of the room and flips on the overhead projector.
Everyone gapes, mesmerized, at the gigantic lurid Colorgraph that
fills the screen. Father Damian explains that what we are seeing is an
incisive synthesis of the “personality of the group”, which has been
calculated using a “sophisticated (and proprietary) algorithm”
developed by PERSONALYSIS scientists. You know the kind: they
wear white coats and work with large computers, equipped with what
appear to be instrument panels, with many flashing lights. Because a
white coat can make any algorithm look clever and sophisticated. Even
if the incisive synthesis is calculated as nothing more than the simple
average of scores for everyone in the group. <br>

(At some later point, I want to write the paragraph that obfuscates
calculation of an average to such a degree that clients are convinced it
required a whole team of psychometricians to think of it, and
represents a calculation of such startling novelty and incisiveness that
it warrants being “proprietary”. Naked emperor, anyone? But that is a
separate peeve)

I’m beginning to think that maybe Father D isn’t all that smart.
Because he looks positively taken aback by the reaction to his little
“personality of the group” synthesis slide. Dude, what did you expect?
This is, after all a group of statisticians, of course they’re going to kick
the tires of your shoddy little calculation. And say WTF to the notion of
“group personality” as a meaningful concept, particularly when your
pretty little Colorgraph, which is clearly nothing more than some kind
of group average plot, manages to suppress all information about
differences among group members. Things get lively, in an enjoyable
kind of way, with Father D being put on the defensive. Even Bonnie,
whose defining characteristic can reasonably be described as “bovine
placidity”, is mixing it up.
Perhaps he felt beleaguered. As if to distract attention, he goes to the
projector and rummages for a second or two. Then, with a kind of
exaggerated precision about lineup, he overlays a second transparency
above the “group summary” already on the screen. The overlaid
transparency looks familiar to me. It couldn’t be. He couldn’t have.

The next twenty minutes or so unfold as a kind of out-of-body
experience. I’m there, physically in the room, temporarily unable to
speak for some reason, but I’m also floating above the room, watching
myself react to the discussion, with mounting irritation and disbelief.
Watching as Lucifer’s own chaplain, Father Damian, leads the group in
a spirited comparison of the “group personality” with mine,
conveniently overlaid for everyone to discuss, and differing noticeably
from the group composite in a couple of key aspects. For example, my
“red” score remains at 4.0 for all three versions of the Colorgraph,
whereas the average red score for the rest of the group never
exceeds 2.0.

One might imagine that being driven to complete tasks and get results
would be a desirable quality in a manager. Apparently, one would be
naïve to think so. According to Satan’s spawn, this is an area which
will require particular attention, because a discrepancy of 2 points or
more is a disaster in the making. But - and this is what is driving my
blood pressure up - the entire discussion is couched in terms of the
aberrant personality (by implication, me, though of course, there’s no
telling how much variation there is among the others, because nobody
else is having their individual data put out on display) needing to
modify behavior to conform more closely to the “norm”.

This is so mind-numbingly stupid that I am actually at a loss for words
for a good twenty minutes or so. Eventually, as the discussion gets (to
me) weirder and weirder, I trust myself to manage a coherent
response and raise my hand to speak. Ignatius Loyola makes no effort
to conceal the fact that he is deliberately ignoring my requests to
speak. We play this little game for another ten minutes or so. Finally,
he turns to me, and says, with obvious delight. “You’re just going to
have to learn a little patience. You’ll have your chance to reply after
lunch. Right now we need to make sure that the disenfranchised
members of your group have an opportunity to be heard”.
Well now, most of the people in the group were actually decent
enough folk, and the vindictiveness of this particular putdown made
most of them visibly uncomfortable. Bonnie, Frank, Roger, and Maria
shut down almost immediately; Heather was looking as if she too were
having an out-of-body experience. Which left the floor open for –

Wilbur had come prepared. Wilbur had brought notes. Wilbur began to
read from his notes. And read, and read. By now, the only people in
the room who aren’t wishing for the floor to open up and swallow them
are Wilbur and Father Damian.

I managed one more semi-coherent objection. Torquemada hushed
me as if I were a mosquito, or worse. He rummaged in his folder and
pulled out a sheet of paper, which he took great delight in brandishing
at me. Adopting a particularly smarmy “more in sorrow than in anger”
tone, he informed me that the group members had been invited to
submit anonymous commentary on my management style prior to the
meeting, and that, once Wilbur had had his say, there was more to
come. He could bearly conceal his glee.

Wilbur starts up again, ratcheting up his nastiness a notch or two. It’s
about twenty minutes until the scheduled lunch break. Father Damian
is watching me closely. I think he expects me to cry.

Things get a little murky here. I didn’t cry. No. Definitely not that.
What happened instead was that I lost it. In a fairly major way. I don’t
really remember the exact sequence of events. Apparently, I started to
scream at Father Damian. Later that evening, I was pretty hoarse, so I
think I may have yelled for quite some time. Not in a controlled way.
More in a “Network” kind of way. There’s about a ten-minute interval
of which I have no memory at all. Let’s just say that atavistic David
took over.
Based on the accounts of others, atavistic David was quite an
entertaining character. He didn’t actually hit anyone. But his language
went way beyond colorful. He certainly kept the attention of the room.
His message, which was repeated at top volume, several times, in ever
fouler language, was pretty clear -

     It was his fracking birthday, and THIS was how people treated
     Other people could do as they bleeping well liked, but HE was
      not about to lower the standard of his work to match the lowest
      common denominator of a group of people who had either never
      known, or completely expunged, the meaning of the word “work”
     Nor was he going to sit there and have some lowlife reject Jesuit
      sleazeball tell him when he might or might not speak
     If this was a REAL company, they would know not to pick unethical,
      unprofessional, mentally deranged rejects from the clergy not to run their
      fracking workshops.
     It was his fracking birthday …..

Loop and repeat.


It’s 2pm and, as you will recall, beta-blockers are now coursing
through my system, rapidly approaching therapeutic levels. In the
interim, Heather, to her enormous credit, has stepped up to the plate.
Bigtime. Savonarola has been sent packing, fancy graphs and all, and
Heather has recruited in Rick, one of her H.R. colleagues, who is
making a visible bid for the day’s “most empathetic participant” award.

The dynamic is distinctly peculiar. I’m nowhere near as agitated as I
had been, but I’m also having a hard time recalling any specifics of my
meltdown, so I’m trying to figure things out based on how people are
behaving towards me. Answer: with exaggerated caution, and
something approaching real concern, which suggests to me that I must
have really lost it. (It wasn’t until several days later that I got a
complete blow-by-blow account from Frank, the only straight shooter
in the group).
Heather and Rick did their H.R. professional thing and managed to
guide us through some completely innocuous role-playing exercises to
a safe landing that afternoon. Somehow it was understood that day 2
of this particular offsite was not going to take place the next day, or
any day after that. We adjourned, in somewhat subdued fashion, by

I felt the need to check in with Heather.
“So, am I, like, in major trouble?”
You could tell that Heather was not the touchy-feely type, and Lord
knows I’m not. So I figured things were probably going to work out
when she grabbed me in a bear-hug, whispering in my ear as she did
so: “Oh, sweetheart, you have nothing to worry about. I’m going to
help you bring that bastard down if it’s the last thing I do”.

Next morning, back in the office, Bonnie (who hadn’t given me the
time of day up until then) appears at my door at around nine o’ clock,
and asks me if I can help her with something. I follow her to the
conference room where the entire department (with the exception of
Wilbur) is there, with one of the biggest-assed birthday cakes I’ve ever
seen in my life.

Maybe, just maybe, there was hope.

Here ends the fifth chronicle.

Coming next week. “Endgame.”

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