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Time to Treat Toxic Emotions at Work

Real emotional pain festers in every work environment and, if left unchallenged, can cripple an organization. Call in the "toxin handlers," advises author Peter Frost in Toxic Emotions at Work, from Harvard Business School Press. Read our interview and excerpt.


Stark: Do you view the degree of toxicity in an organization as a top-down phenomenon?

Frost: Heavy doses of toxicity (pain that strips people of their self esteem and that disconnects them from their work) can come from a number of sources, including the behavior of immediate bosses, uncooperative employees or even abrasive clients. But the tone in an organization tends to be set from the top and so toxicity is often a top-down phenomenon. As one HR manager I interviewed observed: "Fish stinks from the head!" The higher up the toxic person is, the more widely spread is the pain, and the more people there are who behave in the same way. If you have a CEO who delivers public lashings—in effect does his performance appraisals in public—then you will have the lieutenants begin to join in.

Q: Should handling toxins be a functional role of all managers?

A: I think the answer is yes, although not all managers will have the skill or the will to do all or the most challenging toxin handling work themselves. They may have to draw on others in their unit who are talented and willing handlers to complement their own efforts. One key insight in this book is that emotional pain is an inevitable part of organized life. It can come from outside (family or personal traumas and tragedies) but it often stems from painful incidents at work such as toxic bosses, poorly handled mergers or change, inhumane policies and practices, or simply the stress and grind of everyday working interactions. I think that managers can proceed quite confidently with the assumption that "there is always grief somewhere in the workroom!"

There is a lot of suffering in the workplace and it shows little sign of letting up.
— Peter Frost

The second insight is that all leaders create pain. It goes with the challenges that leaders give their followers and their organizations. Good leaders know this and act before or after the pain is created to mop up the emotional mess they create. To the extent that managers do leadership work, and many do, they need to incorporate into their skillset some degree of toxin handling to deal with the fallout from their actions.

Q: What are qualities that make an effective toxin handler?

A: Toxin handlers (read an excerpt from the book) notice others who are in pain. They have empathy for this condition and they are able and willing to act on what they see and feel is happening. They try to help people suffering, to alleviate their situations. A core component of effective toxin handling involves listening to someone else's pain and providing a moment of human connection. Managers who act as handlers consciously take the time to actively connect with a person in pain. Even the act of simply listening to the person's story can help the healing begin. Handlers also know the importance of creating space for others so they can begin to heal. They also buffer their staff and others from toxic messages and acts from others in the organization, taking on the pain themselves or redirecting it so it does not get through to people on the line or in the team.

Handlers are often adept at helping people who are suffering to view their situation in a more positive light. This is especially so when the source of the pain is in the workplace. They do this by framing pain in constructive ways or changing the view of painful experiences, helping staff create workable solutions that allow them to get through the pain, and then turn their attention to more positive pursuits. Some handlers have impact by the example they set, dealing with their own pain in positive ways that inspire others to deal differently with their own difficult situations.

Q: Is there a strong relationship between an individual's ability to deal with toxic emotions and their emotional intelligence?

A: Yes. Emotional intelligence involves knowing one's own emotional condition and managing it well, and being able to read and deal with the emotional state of others. Handlers are usually very adept at picking up social and emotional cues around them and so they "read" suffering in others that is missed by less emotionally-tuned people. Their emotional competence also helps them figure out what to do in particular situations where pain is present. Where they tend to fall down in terms of emotional intelligence capabilities is that they are often careless with their own well-being in dangerous toxic situations. They may know what emotions of their own they are dealing with but they tend to override messages of self-protection or to ignore them and as a result, over time, the toxins they keep dealing with tend to spill into their own space and they can get emotionally or physically sick.

Q: How should a subordinate handle a toxic manager?

A: This is a tricky challenge: with some difficulty! Often, there is little a subordinate can do, by herself, except to keep her head down or to stay away from that manager as much as possible, or leave the waste site altogether. Usually, that employee needs to seek some protection in the form of finding a handler who can assist her by acting as a buffer between her and the manager, or who can help her push back by taking steps to get that manager removed (low probability, often) or by helping her transfer to a healthier unit.

All leaders create pain.
— Peter Frost

Alternatively, a subordinate can make it clear to the toxic boss that the toxicity is hurting performance and therefore is undermining the boss's goals. Getting the boss's attention in this way helps connect the toxic behaviors to undesirable bottom-line outcomes.

Perhaps the most important antidote comes from the organization itself, and from its leaders. If a manager is toxic and persists in this behavior, we need to look at how he or she got there and what keeps this person in place. Often managers with strong technical skills and low "people skills" get promoted regardless of this deficit. They make poor managers unless they are held accountable for their toxic behavior and unless they are trained to prevent or deal with the toxins they produce. We come back to the earlier observation that the tone is set from the top. When that is healthy it helps the subordinate successfully address issues of toxicity with his or her boss and with others.

Q: What were are the biggest surprises that you encountered in your work on toxic emotions in the workplace?

A: First, how much emotional pain there is in organizations. There is a lot of suffering in the workplace and it shows little sign of letting up. Second, that people I have called toxin handlers exist in organizations and how valuable (and dangerous) their work is. Third, that many men (as opposed to only women, the perhaps expected source of handlers) do this work and they do it from line, not staff, positions. The reason, I think, is partly that men do have the capacity to empathize and to show compassion and partly that they understand (as do woman managers) that emotional pain among their employees and in their teams needs to be handled if these employees are to be able to focus confidently on getting creative and productive work done.

Mallory Stark is a business information librarian at Baker Library, Harvard Business School, specializing in organizations.

Peter J. Frost is a professor of organizational behavior at the University of British Columbia.

For more information on this book, go to www.toxinhandler.com

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When an organization has difficult information to communicate, toxin handlers often become the official message bearers or may informally intercept and amend the messages to decrease the emotional pain they might cause. For example, one toxin handler at a transportation company was told by her boss: "Tell those idiots out there to get their act together and finish the job by Friday, or else they'll be sorry!" Her response was to pull her staff together and put the directive in a form that conveyed the task but not the sentiment. "The boss needs us to complete this task by Friday," she told them, "so let's put our heads together and see what we need to do to meet this deadline." By taking the sting out of the boss's message, the toxin handler helped everyone to focus on the challenge rather than seeing the directive as an attack on their capabilities.

Like empathetic listening, such reframing of toxic messages helps to buffer their potentially damaging effects. Reframing focuses handlers on the emotional and technical aspects of a message in order to deflect or prevent pain from reaching its intended audience. The handler zeroes in on the meaning of the message itself and how it may affect people. He reads the message or situation and hears and feels the toxin in it—and then dissipates the toxin.

People with high levels of emotional intelligence are particularly good at such buffering. They are tuned to the emotional tones of language and its malleability, spotting reframing opportunities where other people do not. They work from a premise that several possible meanings can be crafted from most organizational information—and they know how to choose the one that will best buffer pain. In this sense, the toxin handler uses "emotional common sense" to ask, "How can I construct this message so that it removes the pain and makes what the words say more hopeful and workable?" The underlying goal: to say what needs to be said while leaving people's self-worth intact.

The boss at the transportation company intentionally sent three messages: "The work must be done"; "the workers are idiots"; "failing to get the job done will lead to punishment." Knowing that the original messages might demoralize the staff or make them resist the instruction, the handler reframed the boss's messages to become: "The boss needs us to get a job done"; "there is a deadline of Friday"; and "let's see what we need to do to complete the job." A potentially disruptive and destructive message was transformed into one that could even energize the staff with a renewed sense of motivation.

To buffer pain effectively, the toxin handler needs to be able to read messages coming through the system and to sense the barbs in them, intentional or otherwise. This attunement is visceral. The handler feels the meaning of the message or evolving situation as it might be experienced by those who will be affected by it. She can visualize and feel the anger, fear, or demoralization that derogatory statements or actions would trigger if they were directed at people personally. The handler is also often particularly quick at recognizing such situations and stepping in to serve as a buffer.

Joyce Fletcher, who was studying engineers in a high-technology company based in the northeastern United States, tells the story of Abby and Sam, two lab partners who were hard at work when their boss walked in and asked Sam a question. Sam, who was harboring resentment toward the boss over a recent lost contract, responded in a derisive way, without looking up from his work. Before he could finish, however, Abby jumped in with the answer for their boss, who then thanked them and left the room. "Sam sometimes twists the knife in harder and harder," Abby explained to Fletcher. "So I just jumped in and answered the question. So I'm the middleman who [is] sort of like a tension breaker, solving two problems at once I guess."12

The emotional negativity of a message or action can be fairly obvious—such as Sam's response to his boss—and almost anyone who observes well will sense that this isn't the best way to act. But the difference between the toxin handler and most other people observing a negative situation is that, like Abby, the handler not only knows how to intervene; she is also willing to take the time to do so.


12. Joyce K. Fletcher, Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power and Relational Practice at Work (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 59-60.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpt from Toxic Emotions at Work: How Compassionate Managers Handle Pain and Conflict. Copyright 2003 Peter J. Frost; All rights reserved. To order, please call (800) 988-0886.