July 17, 2018

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Interview: Peter Frost on Toxic Workplaces

Peter Frost is an organizational behavior professor at the University of British Columbia and author of "Toxic Emotions at Work".

David Creelman spoke to him about the toxic workplaces and the toxin handlers who help contain the damage.

DC- Tell me about toxic organizations.

PF- We need first to understand that there is always going to be emotional pain in organizations. When a group is striving to make a breakthrough there will be frustration. Every step forward takes some amount of pain. This is not toxic, particularly if we know it's going to be like this going in. However the frustration becomes toxic when the experience strips people of their self-esteem or takes away their hope. Let me give you an example. I start my book with the story of a company that has been through two mergers. The head office is pushing unrelentingly for more performance and has no understanding of what is going on in the workplace. It was a place where you might come into a room and see the senior people with their heads in their hands because they are being asking for 20% more and the numbers are just not there. It was a place where a VP comes in to the CEO's office and breaks into tears. That is an extreme situation but it is a real example of what a toxic workplace can be like.

DC- HR people are bound to care about this kind of thing but let's imagine you are talking to a CFO. They may say, look business is tough; if people can't take the heat they should get out of the kitchen.

PF- There is some truth to that but it breaks down when the situation is such that good people leave or staff are not doing good work because they are hurting. That is going to impact the customer experience and head right to the bottom line. If their people are hurting they are not going to be emotionally or intellectually committed in their work. Good managers know they need to deal with this or the job won't get done.

DC- In your book you point out that toxic situations are often managed by people you call toxin handlers. Tell me about this role.

PF- Toxin handlers are not very numerous. They are people who have high emotional intelligence. They notice what is happening in their workplace and then they step in to listen. Listening is fundamental to what they do. Then they create a space for the stressed person to breathe again. This may involve giving them less work, taking them out of the work place for a period of time or finding some way to buffer the pain. It is a very common for a toxin handler to step in between the source of toxicity and the person. Often toxicity leaks down, or pours down, from the top. The toxin handlers block it so that it doesn't get through to the troops.

DC- It is great for the organization to have people who can block the pain.

PF- The story of Dave Marsing from Intel provides insight on handling toxic situations. He went into a manufacturing situation at Intel where everything was falling apart. He acted as a bridge between scared employees and demanding bosses. He did that successfully until the day he had a heart attack. The stress of trying to handle everything for everyone else was a trigger for what happened to him.

DC- Let's talk about this issue. You are saying handling organizational toxins can threaten your health.

PF- Yes, being a toxin handler can be hazardous for a variety of reasons. This is a very lonely job. When I did the interviews people would tear up and say, "This is the first time I have been able to tell this story!" Then I felt a bit guilty because you and I know that if you are working with pain you can't just deal with it in 60 seconds.

Another reason this is hazardous fits very much into Daniel Goleman's notion that emotions are contagious. That was certainly my experience. If you meet with someone to discuss their pain they might go away saying, "I feel much better. I have unburdened myself." Meanwhile you are left with the residue and over time it starts to stick. This manifests itself when you wake you up at 3:00 in the morning worrying about the issue. When these emotions are intense and it goes on over a number of years then it starts to become a health problem.

DC- What advice can you give to toxin handlers?

PF- First you need to acknowledge that while this is important work but it is also dangerous work. I actually did some interviews with some people who handle physical waste and they always have a buddy system. I think handlers in corporations need somebody they can talk to. Buddies can help you do a reality check. You can ask your buddy, "Am I spending too much time on this? Is this the kind of person who will always generate this kind of condition and there is nothing I can do about it?"

In a more fundamental way they need a game plan that gives them an opportunity to step back and keep things balanced. This type of stuff tends to drain you physically so the game plan should take that into account. Some people go for runs, some people do meditation, other people find other ways but your body needs to be able, at the physical level, to ditch the toxins.

You also need an emotional game plan and the core of the emotional game plan is not to take it personally. Be able to let it go. People need to build some kind of sanctuary into their world whether it is that they don't touch the stuff on Sunday or they have a place they go on a more regular basis to disengage.

They also should create a set of priorities about themselves. In my book, Dave Crisp (who you know from, explains that on his own to do list there is always a piece in there for himself.

The last piece of the puzzle is spirituality, however you care to define it. There needs to be some kind of attention to your life balance, to what you value and why are you doing this stuff. I think some people are drawn to it because they want to be loved and helpful. That can be a slippery slope. You can become a kind of enabler of somebody's pain, rather than helping somebody and then moving on. There are a lot traps.

DC- What can HR do to help toxin handlers be more effective?

PF- First let the handlers you have know that HR supports them. Sometimes you can even bring it into the open and say this work is valued in the organization.

The other part of it is that we need to go beyond these few people who take on the handler role. It is a responsibility of leaders because leaders themselves create pain. The insight is that all leaders create pain, it comes with the territory. If you are pushing for change, stretching people, and making hard decisions, then you are going to create some pain. The really good leaders know that and they either build in some kind of cushioning or they move in afterwards to mop it up.

Not everyone has the emotional intelligence to do this well but leaders have to say this is part of what I am accountable for. If "I" the leader can't do it, then they have to get somebody else involved to make sure it happens.

This is a little bit off to the side, but an interesting phenomenon. What I have seen is what I call the toxic tandem team. You'll see a really toxic boss and somebody who is their sidekick who is the mopper upper. This is not quite what I am recommending because the toxic generators probably aren't even aware of what they are doing. However, it does demonstrate how someone can help the manager who doesn't have the competencies to handle the toxins work generates.

DC- What I find interesting about toxin handlers is we normally don't think about repair mechanisms within the organization and yet if you look at biological systems they are full of repair mechanisms.

PF- Exactly right. That is an analogy that I found very helpful.

DC- Besides supporting the toxin handlers is there anything else HR should be doing?

PF- Organizations need to look at what they do to keep the really toxic bosses out in the first place. This has a lot to do with recruiting and selection but also reward systems. You need to keep them out if you can and if they enter the system then you need to intervene. The dilemma is that often these toxic people have a whole lot of credibility in the more technical arenas.

Some airlines have the right approach, they say even if you are good we will not keep you unless you have the attitude we need. They are prepared to sacrifice technical brilliance to find somebody who is close to being as good but doesn't harm the system.

DC- Do you have any closing advice?

PF- Human resources is two words, "Human" and "Resources". Organization's tends to drag HR into the resource side and you are then seen as a bit soft, if you talk about humans. As HR people we should not be ashamed of the role we could play of making the organization humane. It is ethically appropriate and it is also very practical. If the book and what it stands for can support the human side of human resources then I think I have done something useful.

-David Creelman