Toxicity in the workplace is a regular occurrence and an occupational hazard. That is why the success of many projects, and the organization itself, depends on the success of “handlers,” the people (usually managers) whose interventions either assuage individuals’ pain from toxicity or eliminate it completely. This author describes the role these important handlers play and how they can better manage a toxic situation and themselves.

The work of handlers is vital to the health and success of any organization. It is brave work done by empathetic managers and other staff members who because of the contagiousness of emotional pain, an absence of well-developed skill training, corporate support and recognition, are often left to their own devices and are at risk for illness and burnout. The success of many projects rests in part on this hidden work of handling the toxins that are generated when people are working together in challenging situations. The burden of handling needs to be eased, through recognition and support of the efforts made by handlers. It needs to be shared by widening the distribution of handling activity. Leaders inevitably create emotional pain. They need to become more adept at handling the toxins that are a byproduct of their actions. Organizations are sites and sources of toxicity. They need policies and practices that keep toxins out of the system, that provide intervention when they arise and that need focus attention on healing in the aftermath of toxin removal so that their members and the whole system can thrive.

Savannah was a project manger charged with implementing a new program that was viewed with decidedly mixed feelings by many managers in the organization. The program was designed to change the existing promotion system that was based on seniority to one more clearly related to performance. The change had the blessing of top management, but it was left to Savannah and her team to implement. Before long, she found herself spending large amounts of her time protecting her staff from the anger and mischief of managers who were doing their best to intimidate the team and derail the initiative. “It was a case of “kill the messenger,” Savannah said. “All the anger and bitterness that people felt toward top management was directed at us.”

An important part of Savannah’s role as a leader was spent being a toxin handler for her team and for the organization. Toxin handlers are people who recognize the emotional pain in other people and in a situation. They know that if such pain strips others of their hope or self confidence, those affected will lose their focus on, and enthusiasm for, work and become disconnected from their workplace. As a result, these handlers step into the situation and deflect the pain or prevent or release its effects so that their people can get back to work.

In Savannah’s case, a senior manager who opposed the new policy she was introducing sent an insulting letter to one of the team members. Savannah intercepted it and sent back a memo that instructed the senior manager to send all future correspondence directly to her. The tactic worked. Another senior manager who objected to the policy tried to punish Savannah’s team by moving them to a smaller, less attractive space. Savannah took steps to get the move overturned and the team stayed put.

Savannah handled these potentially toxic intrusions by cutting them off before they could affect her team. Sometimes, the handling work has to do with actual repair. Michael, a project manger in an organization in which the CEO regularly vented his anger and malice on his senior staff often played a different handling role, that of listener. Staff members often descended on Michael’s office, on fire with anger and frustration. He would close the door, motion them into a chair or stand with them, and let them cool down without interruption. “I didn’t say much,” Michael recalls. “But I would look them in the eye and do a lot of nodding.”

Toxin handlers can be found in any part of the organization. Some are managers, specialists in working with people (Human Resources, for example) or those who head projects or deal with functional issues, or who work in close partnership with the CEO. Others include staff members, secretaries or union representatives. What these people have in common is a capacity for empathy and a willingness to act to try to address pain and suffering in others. What they share is a concern for people and for the organization they work in. What they know is that for the most part, their efforts to help others in pain will go unrecognized, unsupported and unappreciated by their organizations. What they experience is the satisfaction of having helped in this way. But they also experience guilt, the feeling that this is somehow not “real work.” As a result, they feel that they must work extra hard to catch up on their so-called legitimate tasks. Since it typically does not count as an organizational contribution, handlers have to work extra hours to get everything done.

The work of the toxin handler is vital to the health and success of any organization. It is also dangerous work, involving emotions that are contagious; it also often done alone and without respite. When they handle emotional toxins for too long or in highly intense situations, the handlers get sick, physically and emotionally, and often, they burn out. This article describes the important role that handlers play and how they can manage that role more effectively.

Toxicity in organizations

Emotional pain occurs in all organizations. People bring their pain to work, be it from an illness in the family, a concern over the actions of a teenage son or daughter, difficulties in a personal relationship, or fears about mortality, triggered by a birthday that is a reminder of time passing. Inside the organization there are many sources of pain: an impending or unfolding merger that threatens one’s job security, or changes downward the odds of a promotion; an incompetent boss who bullies or who fumbles assignments that involve other people’s feelings; unreasonable behaviour by customers and clients. The disturbing effects of emotional pain are manifested in how someone feels about the pain or the way others respond to the pain that they are experiencing. When the effect is such that people feel stripped of their hope, self-esteem or confidence, the likely consequence is that people will become disconnected from what is going on at work, become obsessive about their pain, the source of it, and how others are responding. In any case, their intellectual and emotional capacities are lost to the organization.

Had the managers whom Savannah intercepted had their way, her staff would have experienced considerable pain and toxicity. Had Michael not acted as a “safety valve” for his colleagues, their frustration and anger would have been much worse and debilitating. When employees no longer care, and when their morale and confidence has been eroded by toxicity, one can easily see, especially in service and professional organization,that good work won’t get done, innovation will not thrive, and the customer will not come back.

The work of the toxin handler

The toxin handler can and does alleviate toxic conditions. He or she acts much like a kidney or the immune system that neutralizes, dissipates or disperses the toxins that build up in the system. Handlers work in small and large ways to restore hope and to help people reconnect to their work agendas. They contribute by doing the following.

Listening Handlers take the time to listen to someone else in pain. In doing so, they provide an invaluable moment of human connection with another person at work. Michael’s availability and attention to his colleagues and their anger, as noted earlier, illustrates this role. He stopped what he had been doing, took the phone off the hook or ignored its ring, stopped the conversation in his head about an impending meeting, and focused on his angry colleague. Listening in this way may be all that is needed in some situations, when the angry or frustrated just need an opportunity to “let off steam,” — and someone they trust to witness it. In other situations, the handler may need to redirect the conversation to speed up recovery. However, such deep listening tends to be in short supply because many managers and professionals in organizations are moving too fast. They don’t see or hear the pain of others. They simply “blow by” it.

Holding space for healing When handlers recognize that someone is in pain, they often find a way to create and hold a space that will give the person “breathing room.” This may mean providing a private office, time off or a reduced workload. When Orit Gadiesh, the CEO of Bain and Co., noticed that a manager in her organization had been unhappy for some time, she called him into her office and told him that, though she did not need to know what was going on in his life, she wondered if halving his case load for a while would be helpful. Relieved, he accepted the offer. Two months later, he returned to her office to tell her he was ready to take on more work. He added that without the respite she had provided, he would not have been able to regroup and that he would likely not have been with the organization any more. The unhappy manager had been given time to breathe, to tackle his issue and then to reconnect to his work.

Buffering pain: Much of the work that Savannah did in her role as a toxin handler consisted of buffering her team from toxic interventions from the outside. Her interception of the hurtful letter to a team member was one such initiative. Preventing a manager from downgrading the team’s office space was another buffering intervention. In essence, this role involves stopping the toxins from leaking into a situation. The handler either takes or redirects the toxins, so the targets either never know about the toxicity or see it dissipate before it reaches them.

People with high levels of emotional intelligence are particularly good at buffering. They are attuned to the emotional tones of language and actions and they know how to rework them, so as to take away the painful edge in a message from someone who may be delivering debilitating pain. The toxin handler uses “emotional common sense” to ask, “How can I construct this message or reinterpret this action so that it removes the pain and makes what the words or behaviour say more hopeful and workable for my people?” The underlying goal is to communicate what needs to be said while leaving people’s self-worth intact.

Extricating others from painful situations. Handlers are often quick to take charge of a situation in which someone is floundering. Their response may be to take action to get them out of the mess. Take the case of a promising junior staff member who had been transferred to a department against the wishes of a manager. The manager, who had a reputation for emotional insensitivity, was convinced that the new member would not measure up. As is often the case, the manager sent signals that over time diminished the woman’s confidence. She soon began to fulfill the manager’s prophecy. Enter the handler, a more senior manager, who recognized what was going on and with the aid of a human resource specialist in the company, engineered a transfer of the staff member to a more sensitive unit. Such maneuvers require delicacy and tact so that neither the disbelieving manager nor the disillusioned employee is compromised in the action. In the new, supportive climate, the employee once again began to thrive, and several years later, she became a senior vice president in the company.

Transforming pain: Many potentially toxic situations in organizations cannot be changed in the short run. Therefore, they require constructive “translation.” For example, difficult senior managers will rarely change their styles even if they understand that they’re hurting people. Much of the toxin handler’s work in transforming situations, then, occurs by changing how people deal with painful experiences.

David Crisp, formerly senior vice president of human resources at the Hudson Bay Company in Canada, helped his staff see difficult situations constructively by encouraging them to create a plan of action that could help them through stressful times at work as well as give them a realistic appraisal of the situation they all faced. “I’d tell them that this is a tough period, and work wise we have to get through it. We have to put things in the right priority so we get our butts kicked as (little) as possible and we can feel proud that the right things got done.” Crisp (currently a leadership consultant) also reminded staff of the importance of making time for themselves and their families.

The price that handlers pay

A toxin handler can derive considerable satisfaction from helping someone in the organization recover from the toxic effects of the pain they have been experiencing. The handler experiences additional satisfaction when this the recovery translates into good performance, or the completion of a task that would have been sidelined by toxicity. There are costs to doing this work, however, particularly if the handler is not supported by her organization or if the handler begins to take on the pain of those he helps and in effect becomes contaminated by the toxicity. Handlers risk becoming so immersed in the work of healing others that they are unable or unwilling to recognize the toll this takes on their own mental and physical health. They become overwhelmed by all the pain they are trying to cope with. Over time, they begin to lose their sensitivities as handlers. It begins to affect their work and the health and quality of their own lives. The stress of it all can compromise the handler’s immune system. The absence of company support makes it worse. Illness in various forms begins to emerge.

Savannah, the project manager mentioned earlier, performed admirably as a toxin handler for her team. Eventually, they completed the project successfully. However, she wasn’t able to protect herself quite as well. After several months, she recalls, the stress began to get to her. “At work, I would be strong for my team, but at home, I cried a lot,” she said. “I slept away from my husband, although I didn’t actually sleep very much, and often felt terribly depressed. The worst part, though, [was] the panic attacks, which would come on so suddenly. My heart would pound, and I would lose my breath.”

Michael, the project manager who helped his peers cope with the difficult CEO had to take a year off from his job to recover from the stress of dealing with the toxic boss before he could rejoin the company in another capacity. Such cases beg the important question: Who will handle the handler?

Healing the handler

Handlers need to recognize clearly that this important work is hazardous and that they need to frequently monitor their emotional involvement with others in pain. Handlers need a game plan, one that helps them recognize why they are helping someone else. It must include practical tools and skills to protect and strengthen their resilience in the face of emotionally toxic situations. The challenge they face is to be professionally intimate with those they help. That is, they must remain attuned and responsive to others in pain without taking on the toxicity they encounter and starting the slide toward burnout.

Handlers need ways to catch their breath. Protection and recovery comes from establishing a pattern that creates breaks in the action, so that handlers can retreat from the toxicity and recover their energy and perspective. Some elements of such a game plan follow:

1. Keeping fit. Physical activity helps drain the toxicity from the handler’s own system. Physical capacity develops through activities that involve exertion, making the body stronger and fitter, and through mechanisms that release muscular tensions, relaxing the body before or after stressful emotional work. Handlers need to build stamina through regular exercise to become more resilient to the demands of the emotional work they do. Engaging in focused relaxation through activities such as massage or meditation helps to release tension and to build routines in the body and mind that help inoculate handlers from toxins.

2. Staying positive. Healthy handling also involves developing emotional capacity. It is important for handlers to feel good about the work they’re doing. Managers who adopt positive attitudes toward the toxic situations they face say this helps them keep the pain and suffering in perspective. Tactics that have worked for toxin handlers include looking at situations as learning opportunities, not taking things personally, being patient when emotions are turbulent, accepting that some situations cannot be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and maintaining a sense of humor.

3. Saying “No” more often. Handlers don’t have to take on every case, but when they do accept them, they should not take on the problems of those they are healing. Saying “No” is hard for handlers. They are adept at seeing pain in people but frequently are reckless with their own well-being, preferring to respond to the needs of others. “I can help others but I cannot help myself,” is one common comment from handlers. One handler found professional counseling helpful in this regard. He recalled: “I learned that it was possible to say no with options.” “I learned that ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘I don’t care,’ and it doesn’t mean ‘not ever.’ It can mean, ‘No, I can’t do this, but I could do this.’ Or, ‘No, I can’t help you now, but how about tomorrow.’ Or, ‘No, I can’t help you but let me find someone who can.'” It is also acceptable to just say “no!” That insight, the manager says, made work manageable again.

4. Creating a sanctuary…and using it frequently. Creating personal space is inherently about taking charge of some part of one’s life and safeguarding it from all intrusions. Ronald Heifetz, cofounder of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, described a technique that he developed for himself. He created a daily sanctuary by reading an email that a friend, who’s a mystic and a biblical scholar, sends out each day. In doing so he trained himself to take a few minutes every day to read the message and to “meditate” on its meaning. It created a different mental space for him in an otherwise very busy day.

5. Manage the message. The handler needs to show others how his work contributes to the success of employees and of the company. The key is for handlers to communicate throughout the company that their work enables them to head off or help heal a painful condition that, unattended, would hurt the individual’s performance and ultimately the company. Michael’s handling work of listening, and Savannah’s buffering her staff as well as other activities of the handler need to be recognized as activities that contribute to the organization’s progress. For example, the astute handler wouldn’t tell a superior simply that she’s “lightening staff member Jeffrey’s load for a while”-as if it’s a matter of technical incompetence. Rather, she would say “I’m shifting Jeffrey’s responsibilities to help him cope with his recent stress [or loss in his family, or whatever]. I want him to be able to come back and work harder, not burn out on us.” The handler and those who support his or her work need to help others see that helping Jeffrey, or letting colleagues vent, or preventing staff members from losing confidence or commitment to their work are important contributions to important organizational goals.

6. Leave the site. There might come a time in the life of a toxin handler when she finds herself overwhelmed by the toxicity in her organization and sees no hope for improvement. The general conditions of suffering in her workplace may be so great that whatever she does is only a Band-Aid solution to a more deeply rooted set of organizational problems. She may need to leave the toxic site altogether. Handlers who are burning out are usually too worn down to recognize when they need to walk away from a toxic site altogether. They need the honest counsel of others (previously cultivated) to help handlers regain their perspective – and perhaps to find the courage to leave a toxic organization.

The work of handlers is vital to the health and success of any organization. It is brave work done by empathetic managers and other staff members who because of the contagiousness of emotional pain, an absence of welldeveloped skill training, corporate support and recognition, are often left to their own devices and are at risk for illness and burnout. The success of many projects rests in part on this hidden work of handling the toxins that are generated when people are working together in challenging situations. The burden of handling needs to be eased, through recognition and support of the efforts made by handlers. It needs to be shared by widening the distribution of handling activity. Leaders inevitably create emotional pain. They need to become more adept at handling the toxins that are a byproduct of their actions. Organizations are sites and sources of toxicity. They need policies and practices that keep toxins out of the system, that facilitate intervention when they arise and that focus attention on healing so that the organization’s members and the whole system can thrive.