Managing toxic workplace emotions (HR Manager's Bookshelf)

Review of Peter Frost's book <i>Toxic Emotions at Work</i>

The healthy workplace revolves around physical safety concerns, rules and ergonomics, but it also means an atmosphere of respect, fairness and constructive human relationships. Many HR professionals strive to implement sound practices, systems and policies but recognize that other dimensions of the culture and behaviour in the organization come into play, making for a healthy, or unhealthy, work environment.

Employees live with debilitating uncertainty about their role, contribution and employment security. Executives spend sleepless nights agonizing about people issues. Interactions with managers or colleagues become poisonous. Stress and depression become pervasive, and physical health suffers as well.

Toxic Emotions at Work, by Peter Frost, acknowledges the unhealthy atmosphere in many workplaces and draws attention to the importance of the role of the manager or leader even in an era of so much attention to virtual workplaces, teams, high levels of computerization and automation and the impersonal nature of many work situations.

If you feel the strain of difficult workplace relationships and dynamics, this book offers insight and some pointers on taking care of yourself and others caught up in the negativity. It can also serve as a resource for developing a strategy to foster a more humane, and successful, organization.

In the experience of Frost, a University of British Columbia professor, toxicity — or emotional pain — is an inevitable and normal byproduct of organizational life. The question is how can it most effectively be dealt with or, even better, prevented?

From the book’s jacket: “No matter where we work or volunteer our time, emotional pain is an unavoidable consequence of doing business. While the sources vary — abusive bosses, combative customers, heavy workloads, impossible deadlines, unexpected tragedies — the result is often the same: we disconnect from work, morale sinks and performance drops.”

Some of the sources are intentional and malicious. Some are related to the corporate agenda, workload, intrusive rules and practices, while others flow from skill deficiencies including insensitive, indecisive or distrustful managers and peers. Personalities, politics and policies can all contribute to toxicity and the ensuing stress, frustration, discouragement, anger and even physical illness.

The book outlines the key role played by people (“toxin handlers”) who handle the emotional pain of others through listening, buffering pain, facilitating healing, extricating others, teaching and coaching and supporting.

Helpful behaviours are not always grand efforts. It doesn’t have to be therapy sessions because even a brief “human moment” can make a powerful difference.

Toxin handlers frequently absorb and suffer negative consequences from the very act of offering so much help to others. The book provides guidance and ideas for self-renewal and for organizations interested in supporting the people who play these vital and beneficial roles.

Leaders, both formal and informal, may be toxin handlers or they may create and contribute to the pain felt by peers and subordinates. But leaders may play both roles and here things become complex and harmful for both the leader and others who feel the impact.

Frost asks, “But how is a culture of toxicity created in organizations in the first place?”

And then answers, “It stems in part from the way managers rise to the top, and in part from how they’re treated when they get there. To reach the top in many organizations, managers feel they have to turn a blind eye to the toxicity they see and cause along the way. They become dulled to the painful emotional elements of their work. Moreover, as people rise higher and higher in an organization, they find themselves with fewer reality checkpoints and mentors. Noted one senior executive: ‘By the time you are a CEO, you have no sounding boards. It’s hard to express your fears and concerns to people around or below you. You don’t want to appear stupid or uncertain.’ Managers, then, are always at risk of losing touch with what is really happening in the organization and with how their behaviour affects others.”

Still, leaders can take on the challenge successfully:

“In the context of toxicity, leaders do best when they keep the feelings and well-being of staff or of other colleagues centrally in mind — an encouragement to consider the emotional costs and benefits of any initiative. When leaders put people first, the intellectual and emotional communication between leaders and their people becomes a central feature of effective action.

“These leaders know that things such as a planned change will typically trigger unhappiness among those affected by it. Some staff may have to give up work habits that have been comfortable and emotionally sustaining; others might have to break up teams or move from cherished work spaces. Unanticipated stress and strains might grip people as a change takes hold. As a toxin handler, the leader will have the emotional well-being of her staff in mind and build in ways to prevent anticipated effects, or to address and minimize them when they happen. Also, leaders may increase their vigilance for early signs of distress and develop ways to cope with it at all stages.”

Effective change management, then, emerges as a key ingredient in fighting toxicity. A healthy way through the toxic emotions can be found in the compassionate organization which:

•sees the link between the emotional health of employees and the company’s bottom line;

•recognizes and rewards managers for constructive behaviours;

•hires for attitude and interpersonal skills, as well as technical requirements;

•maintains a fair-minded workplace with consistent values;

•offers interventions and rehabilitation at times of trauma; and

•builds a culture of community to foster productivity and human well-being.

For HR practitioners concerned about the realities of emotional pain at work, this book will confirm they are not alone, that there are actions that can be taken to address the problems. Hopefully it will find its way onto the radar screens of some of those toxic managers, employees or customers who need it most.

Ray Brillinger is a senior consultant with IBM Business Consulting Services. He provides change management, business transformation and organization effectiveness strategy and implementation support to clients. He can be reached at (905) 316-8733 or [email protected]. For more on toxic workplaces, click on the “Related Articles” link below..

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