Toxic Emotions at Work How Compassionate Managers Handle Pain and Conflict

By Coghlan, David | Irish Journal of Management, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Toxic Emotions at Work How Compassionate Managers Handle Pain and Conflict


Coghlan, David, Irish Journal of Management


Toxic Emotions at Work How Compassionate Managers Handle Pain and Conflict by Peter J. Frost Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003

Every now and then an article is published whose subject matter captures scholars' and practitioners' interest and contributes a new concept or frame to the field. In 1999 in the Harvard Business Review, Peter Frost coined the term "toxic handler" to refer to those who carry the emotional pain of others in organisations. That term caught on and now some years later Frost has developed his notion in a book. The Prologue sets the context. Frost describes the emergence of melanoma cancer in his own body and its successful removal. he reports how he reflected on whether his tenure as associate dean in his university had been the cause of his cancer. From reading and attending seminars he began to see how emotional pain in organisations causes stress and that there are some people in organisations who assume the pain of others for the sake of the whole system and there are those who cause the pain and who themselves become vulnerable to the same pain. As he began to explore this in seminars with executives and managers he found himself inundated with stories and experiences that confirmed his hypothesis. He coined the term "toxic handlers" to describe those who handle the pain of others. Toxicity suggests poison, spreading, seeping often undetected in a system. It can be eliminated if detected and a cure is known.

The nine chapters of the book develop and explore this basic notion of emotional pain as toxicity in organisations and the role of toxic handlers in dealing with this pain. Each page provides numerous and rich examples. Chapter 1 develops the book's theme and discusses how organisations and their leaders produce emotional pain, how that pain can be considered toxic and its effects on individuals. Frost constantly makes the point that emotions are part of the human condition and inherent in any work situation and that managers driving for success may overlook or dismiss the impact of emotions. Toxic handlers are those managers and professionals who deal with this pain, usually in an unobtrusive and unrecognised manner.

Chapter 2 explores the sources of toxicity in organisations. Sources from managers neatly fit into seven "Ins" - intention, incompetence, infidelity, intrusion, insensitivity, institutional factors and inevitability. Examples of sources from employees and customers include bullies, those who are rude, spread gossip and engage in emotional outbursts. Frost notes that as toxicity is insidious, those who get to the top of organisations tend to behave in a manner that others further down the hierarchy then imitate. Chapter 3 focuses on the work of toxic handlers. They listen, buffer pain, provide a holding space for healing, extricate others from painful situations and transform pain by framing it constructively and providing empathy. …

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