Handling the pain of others: The hidden role of supervisors

Supervisors are often described as the “meat in the sandwich,” between upper management and employees on the front line.

This “being in the middle of things” represents one particularly important challenge for supervisors that is rarely recognized, acknowledged or supported in many organizations.

This is the role of the “toxin handler.”

Pain is a fact of organizational life: companies will merge, bosses will make unrealistic demands, people will lose their jobs.

Pain can also come from personal experiences such as the loss of a loved one, having a serious illness or facing hurtful changes in relationships.

The emotions that accompany events such as these aren’t in themselves toxic; rather, it’s how that pain is handled throughout the organization that determines whether its long-term effects are positive or negative. What turns pain into toxicity, especially in organized settings, is when others respond to that pain in an insensitive and harmful, rather than healing, way.

This is where the supervisor needs to step in to address the toxins.

The supervisor as toxin handler must demonstrate a capacity to notice and empathize with staff members who are dealing with pain and take steps to help the sufferer.

Handlers act out of compassion but also out of a clear recognition that when employees are burned by emotional toxicity, they disconnect from work performance and are unable to function effectively.

The supervisor identifies, contains, neutralizes or disperses emotional poison so that those in pain can begin to heal and refocus their efforts on getting the job done.

Five themes of toxin handling

Supervisors, as toxin handlers, respond to pain in many ways, small and large. But their work tends to reflect five major themes:

Listening: They listen with attention and compassion to someone else’s pain.

Holding space for healing: They recognize that someone is in pain, then find ways to create and hold a space that will give the person “breathing room.” They might do this by providing a private office or time off or a reduced workload.

Buffering pain: Handlers will take the pain in a harsh message from the top or from other managers and hold it so none of the toxins get through. A message that the employees are incompetent and lazy (“those idiots”) can be rephrased to appeal to their pride in getting the planned work done.

Extricating others from painful situations: Handlers may use their political skills to get a promising employee transferred to a more receptive department.

Transforming pain: Many potentially toxic situations in organizations cannot be changed in the short run and therefore require the constructive “translation” that toxin handlers can offer. For example, difficult chief executive officers or senior managers will rarely change their styles even if they understand that they’re hurting people.

Much of the toxin handler’s work to transform situations, then, occurs through changing the view of painful experiences.

When done successfully, the toxin handler can feel extreme joy and satisfaction in the work. But there is also a dark side to this work.

Negativity can overwhelm

One of the biggest dangers for supervisors is becoming toxic themselves. Too often, handlers become so immersed in the work of healing others that they are unable or unwilling to recognize the toll taken on their own mental and physical health.

The result? Toxin handlers, over time, experience a number of negative effects that, if untreated, begin to dull their sensitivities as handlers, the effectiveness of their work and the health and quality of their own lives.

They become overwhelmed by the pain they are trying to cope with and to heal; it numbs them to their own and other people’s feelings. They stop being effective handlers and often start, without realizing it, becoming toxic themselves.

It shows up in such things as bitterness, withdrawal from others, a feeling of not being appreciated for the work they have been doing to help others. They can hurt others through their grief and they display a general weariness with all the toxicity around them.

This burnout may even begin to affect how well they do the rest of their work. They lack the energy or the intellectual sharpness to deal with targets, deadlines or creative responses to challenges.

And because handlers usually work alone, keeping to themselves the pain they’re managing, they become isolated and trapped in the role.

The confidential, behind-the-scenes work they do rarely allows them opportunities to unburden themselves to others or to otherwise dissipate the toxicity. As well, working to alleviate the pain of others in organizations is rarely rewarded, encouraged or supported. But there are ways for organizations to reduce the burden on supervisors.

Helping supervisors handle toxins

It is important for the managers of the organization to be aware that they inevitably create pain — it goes with the territory. But good managers know this and take steps to cushion or to mop up the pain they cause. When managers accept this role, the load no longer rests only with supervisors.

Distributing the work of managing toxicity among multiple leaders accomplishes at least three things.

First, it lifts some of the relentless burden of dealing with organizational toxins from those supervisors who have stepped in simply because no one else would do so.

Second, it puts the responsibility for managing the toxins with those who have more power than do the supervisors — enabling real and effective interventions when necessary and rooting out toxicity where it has taken hold.

Third, an organization that expects and reinforces toxin handling in its leaders creates a force for positive experiences.

It naturally engenders a more healthy work environment than one that ignores or blocks this competency.

A crucial step to improving the situation for supervisors is an acceptance that the toxin-handling activities of supervisors is part of normal supervisory work — not an “extra” activity that is “bootlegged” into the daily agenda. Leaders of organizations need to acknowledge that toxin handlers exist-and that they play a critical role.

Enlightened company leaders can minimize the toll on toxin handlers by bringing them together in support groups or by arranging for them to meet periodically with professionals who are trained to help them decompress and rejuvenate.

One manager who had been a toxin handler for two years during a company restructuring said: “It took a therapist to help me to recognize that I was taking (the toxicity) into my gut. I was ignoring all the signs my body was sending me. I was taking things very personally. The therapist allowed me to hear myself in denial.”

One relatively straightforward way for organizational leaders to broach the subject is to provide opportunities for managers to come together to discuss concerns about the health and productivity of their units. The agenda of such meetings can include discussion of toxin handling or managing emotions in the workplace.

If the setting feels “safe” (often that means if the meeting is run by some kind of outside professional or consultant), people will likely begin to discuss the issue. Human resource managers can play an important role in facilitating such meetings and ensuring that they are safe. When they have input to strategic decisions in their companies, they can also work to get toxic handling on the main agenda.

Create safe zones

Even when other actions, such as counselling, can help toxin handlers deal with stress, it also makes sense on occasion to move them out of a particularly stressful situation. These moves need not be long term.

One company sent a toxin handler who was showing signs of burnout to a two-week conference in Florida. The conference was work-related — there were at least three hours of meetings a day — but also included heavy doses of rest and relaxation. It was, in essence, a forced vacation.

Research confirms the healing power of taking breaks or retreating to some form of “safe zone.” Californians André Delbecq of the Leavey Business School at Santa Clara University and Frank Friedlander of the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara studied the habits of 166 business leaders in the computer and health-care industries. All participants were known to be happy, healthy, and well-balanced, and all worked in companies undergoing rapid change — and therefore managed considerable organizational pain.

One thing they had in common was that they frequently took short (two- to five-day) vacations, typically with their families.

“The breaks allowed the leaders to step back, regain a fresh perspective on themselves and their situations,” Delbecq observed. “Each time, they returned to work like new people.”

Supervisors who handle toxins well are an invaluable resource in organizations. So are HR practitioners who recognize and support their efforts. The larger challenge for HR is to get toxicity and its elimination on the front burner of organizational priorities and to help their companies find ways to prevent and to eliminate or disperse the toxins that inevitably build up. This is a noble and practical agenda worthy of the attention of all HR professionals.

Peter Frost is a the Edgar F. Kaiser professor of organizational behaviour, Faculty of Commerce, University of British Columbia, and author of Toxic Emotions at Work, Harvard Business School Press, 2003. His Web site is www.toxinhandler.com.

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