Is Whiplash a film about organisational culture?

tilt shift photo of acoustic drum set

I wrote this article for the Centre for Workplace Leadership in 2015. I got very excited when their Tweet was liked by someone that had been in the film!

NB: This article discusses elements of the film. If you haven’t watched it, you might want to look away now. And go and find it, it’s worth watching!

I recently watched Whiplash, the Oscar-winning film about a young jazz drummer, who is pushed beyond his limits by his band leader, Terence Fletcher (played by JK Simmons). Maybe it’s because I’ve been spending so much time reading and writing about organisational issues in recent months, but it really struck me that this was a film about toxic organisational culture with some interesting lessons about “cultural fit”. Why would I say that?

Firstly, JK Simmons’ central (and incredibly powerful) performance was about the sort of leader that would make Dan Goleman shudder. Goleman identifies 6 leadership styles, all of which are required under specific circumstances. The coercive style is described as follows:

Modus operandi: demands immediate compliance The style in a phrase: “Do what I tell you” Underlying emotional intelligence competences: Drive to achieve, initiative, self-control When the style works best: In a crisis, to kick start a turnaround, or with problem employees Overall impact on climate: Negative

That certainly describes Fletcher’s leadership style, though even the most coercive leaders probably don’t throw chairs at people’s heads. The film revolves around Andrew, a young drummer with potential, who is brought into the leading jazz band of his conservatoire. What I noticed immediately was the cowed nature of the other band members. They had had any sense of initiative or creativity beaten out of them, presumably by the treatment we then witnessed being dished out to Andrew. They were a cultural fit for the band, compliant, moulded to the requirements of the leader, technically competent, and not daring to question the leader’s goals or methods.

Another parallel with toxic organizational culture I noticed was how this coercive leadership style affected band members when they got the chance to hand it out to others. Andrew is alternate to another drummer who is as rude to Andrew as Fletcher (though less physically threatening).

The culture in which bullying is set up as acceptable is then extended throughout the organisation.

There is also an interesting dimension relating to feedback. Fletcher explains that he drives people the way he does because he wants to get them to give every drop they have. The most damaging phrase is, he says “good job”. I read reports last week of some research around the psychology of feedback v praise, which shows that children told “you’re really clever” did worse on tests than children told “you’re trying really hard”. Also very interesting in the article is the section on a successful basketball coach, who neither praised nor derided very much, but provided lots (75% of his comments) of information about what was being done right or wrong.

Goleman describes this as the coaching style:

Modus operandi: develops people for the future The style in a phrase: “Try this” Underlying emotional intelligence competences: Developing others, empathy, self-awareness When the style works best: To help an employee improve or develop long-term strengths Overall impact on climate: Positive

Of course, it wouldn’t have been as interesting a film if Fletcher had been this style…

The academic literature suggests that three elements are necessary for destructive leadership to take hold: a destructive leader who displays charisma, personalized power and/or narcissism, among other traits; susceptible followers who either conform to or collude with the leader; and conducive environments through factors such as cultural values, a lack of checks and balances or perceived threat. Whiplash certainly showed all three — a narcissistic leader, followers who were either cowed by, or participating in the behavior, and an environment where such behavior was allowed to occur unchecked, and tacitly accepted.

Cultural fit can be a seductive concept in organisations.

However, it can be dangerous, not just in terms of excluding important groups such as women and ethnic minorities, but also because it can lead to groupthink, or, even worse, an atmosphere where questioning the ideas of the leaders is seen as defiance or disloyalty. Pearls are made from the irritation of grains of sand in the oyster shell. Every organisation needs some people that don’t “fit” to keep it dynamic and stop any slide into complacency. It also links to some of the things Frédéric Laloux said, about being whole at work. If you are suppressing parts of your personality in order to fit in at work, then I believe you are heading for trouble in the longer term.

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen and European Union official, who lives in Brussels again after 6 years in London and 8 in Melbourne. My blog(s) reflect my interests in the EU, yarncrafts, organisations and dog ownership.

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