By their being and their actions, thoughtful, empathetic leaders can create an emotionally healthy and energized workplace. Such leaders know how to dissipate the toxins that demoralize and even tyrannize people. They also know how to do so while, at the same time, leading the company to achieve its business and social goals. They’ve got one of the most valuable skills a great leader can have.

All leaders create pain, directly or indirectly; it goes with the territory. Leadership has a strong emotional component to it. In addition to sometimes providing inspiration and excitement, leadership is about pushing limits, setting new directions, and taking decisions that are not necessarily popular with one’s followers. It is about acting with imperfect knowledge of the situation or its outcomes so that, inevitably, things go wrong. As a result, followers tend to be pushed beyond their comfort zones-asked to do or to support actions that they may not fully understand, enjoy or support, and they often feel angry, disillusioned, frustrated or afraid.

What’s more, leaders under pressure sometimes lose their bearings or their sensitivity to the impact on others of their attitudes and actions. We are all susceptible to following our emotions our own emotions, especially when we’re under stress. We can have a “bad hair day” and take our anger or frustration out on others. Really good leaders understand these dynamics and take steps to mitigate, minimize or mop up the pain they create for others. Their actions, then, are less likely to become toxic and to corrode the relationships they have with others. Handling the pain they create (and observe in a situation) preserves or invigorates the excitement and energy that others can bring to their work.

Not all pain stimulated by the leader is necessarily bad. One often hears, as a kind of mantra, “No pain, no gain”; it does have a place in the workplace. To accomplish their goals, leaders and their team must push through emotionally difficult situations to get there. At the end of a successful outcome, the effort and the emotional costs may seem to have been worth it. But emotional pain becomes problematic for people when it results in loss of confidence or self-esteem, or when people feel hopeless and lost as a result of the pain they are experiencing. It then becomes toxic and very dysfunctional to the health and effectiveness of the employees and the organization. When conditions are toxic, people spend more time focusing on the pain and its sources-sometimes even obsessing about it-than they do on their work. They disconnect from the workplace physically or psychologically, and they give far less than their best performance in the organization. Heading off emotional toxins or mopping them up when they occur is an unsung feature of competent leadership. In this article, I will describe what a leader can do to manage emotional pain.

The emotionally competent leader

Pat, a project manager in a high-tech firm, describes a situation he found himself in with his team. “We were going full tilt on a new project I was leading and had one of our late-afternoon meetings to review where we were and what needed to be done next. I was feeling the pressure of the deadline for completion, which was coming up pretty fast. I’m usually quite patient in these meetings and try to listen for mistakes and things we might have missed along the way. But this time I found myself butting in and pushing one of the team members for explanations-really being quite curt with him. After that, he didn’t say much for the rest of the meeting.

“That night, I woke up with the meeting playing over in my mind and thinking, ‘Oh shit! I really blew it with Mark. Like me, he’s under a lot of pressure and I really need to have him fully on board if we are going to get done in time.’ In my replay of the meeting, I could see his face and I sensed the anger and hurt he was feeling. I’d made an example of him, something I rarely do, and I’m sure he lost face with the others. I wished I’d not been so darn testy. The next evening, before we got down to the business of the meeting, I told the team: ‘I was out of line in my criticism of Mark last night. He is doing his best, we are all doing our best, and his suggestions were really pretty constructive. I’m feeling the heat of this project just like you all are, and I let my emotions get in the way this time. I am sorry, Mark. It wasn’t intended to be personal, even if it felt that way!’ Boy! You could hear a pin drop in the room. Then Mark smiled and said, ‘That’s okay, Pat. I probably deserved it. I wasn’t that careful in the way I gave my answers.’ I’m not sure he really believed that, but he was offering peace. Almost immediately, the energy of the group picked up and we had a very productive session.”

Pat does a good job as a leader. He performs well technically, but equally importantly, he reads emotional situations well. He usually anticipates when there’s going to be a painful response to something he or the organization demand of his staff-creating a potentially toxic situation-and he knows how to cushion it or discuss it with the team as a message hits home. But in this situation he was under the pressure of tight deadlines and other stresses that come with being in a competitive environment, and he lost his composure and a sense of his impact on his team. He added to the anger or disappointment or frustration in the team, and as confidence sagged, he unwittingly made the situation toxic. In this instance, he did eventually “get it,” in the early hours of the next morning when things that are nagging at us float to the surface. Later, he took steps to redress the discomfort he had created.

There are ways for leaders to better anticipate the impact of pain they create among their followers. Let’s examine how to improve the leader’s pain management skills.

Paying attention

Phil Jackson, coach of the highly successful Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers basketball teams, believes, “Awareness is everything.” He means that having an open mind to whatever one sees or encounters increases the capacity of an individual to respond appropriately to a situation. Leaders paying attention to toxicity become aware of unfolding situations by being alert to the presence and signals of others as they work with them, and by being open-minded, rather than making snap judgments or becoming defensive when presented with data about the emotional condition of others. They’re also open-hearted in the responses they make to situations they encounter. Being open-hearted allows for empathy and compassionate and caring behaviour by the leader. It allows a leader (like Pat) to acknowledge his or her mistakes and to begin to heal the situation. It provides the opportunity for the leader to discover responses to the situation that will “lift” people and restore their confidence and their hope. Followers recover the power to respond positively to a situation and to renew their focus on doing a better job next time. Leaders also can be assured that in most situations involving people, there will be grief somewhere in the room, and it will be evident in more or less subtle ways. The task for the leader is to look for cues and symptoms of pain, and to be ready to engage the pain with empathy and without judgment.

Janet Skadden, a new manager in human resources at Cisco, wanted to try something different at a beachside meeting of 300 managers. She had come to Cisco from Tandem, a company whose relaxed, interpersonal culture encouraged employees to participate in activities like trust-building games. Skadden hoped such games might help the Cisco engineers unwind and get to know one another better. The exercises bombed. Her “beach games” were the butt of several jokes.

Skadden was crestfallen. CEO John Chambers had witnessed Skadden’s efforts at the beach. He picked up on her mood and soon after visited her in her office. He praised her efforts to organize the off-site meeting. She told Chambers she thought she had failed and had let him and others down. Chambers chose to put a frame on the event that gave Skadden a more positive, hopeful way to move forward: “The minute you stop trying to do things like that, I’m going to be really disappointed. If you’re not taking risks and trying new things, you’re not trying hard enough. I loved the fact that we tried something different.” (Fast Company, October 1997).

Attentive leaders know they are not the only person in the room. Like John Chambers, they have an awareness of what is going on around them, sometimes subliminally, and they respond to such external cues. Leaders working with information about the emotional condition of their staff tend to make more informed decisions with longer-lasting effects than if they respond impulsively or judgmentally to the episode.

Finally, a significant aspect of paying attention is being aware of the culture within which the suffering becomes evident. People often feel deeply attached to the values and norms of their culture, even if these values are harmful or could be replaced with healthier ones. Emotional attachments to a culture affect how the leader, the sufferer and other members of the organization respond to change or to efforts to deal with the sources of pain. Leaders need to factor the values and norms of the organization into how they assess situations, and the responses they make to the pain they confront.

Putting people first

Emotionally responsive leaders know the value of investing in their people. They recognize that most people at work want the chance to do a variety of things and to take on challenges. They also want and respond to being treated with respect and dignity. But when they are hurting, they cannot bring their intellectual and emotional qualities fully to bear on their performance. They lose focus; they withdraw commitment to their organization by giving less effort, or they leave.

Like paying attention, the practice of putting people first ensures that, for any decision and course of action, the leader recognizes that employees make a key difference to the result; they are assets, not expenses. Thus, good leaders ask questions such as: “How might this change affect those who must carry it out or be on the receiving end?” and “How are things going for them now?” Or, given the focus of this article: “Is it sensible emotionally for those who must carry out whatever we do?”

 In the context of preventing or dealing with toxicity in the workplace, leaders do best when the feelings and well-being of staff or other colleagues are always central in their thoughts – an encouragement to consider the emotional costs and benefits of any initiative.

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 may have their teams break up, or they may have to move out of cherished workspaces.

Understanding the value and importance of placing people at the centre of decisions and actions isn’t easy for many leaders, especially if they’ve spent their careers in organizations that put profit or competitive dominance at the forefront of their priorities. One leader, a manager of a team of specialists in a highly competitive service industry, shares the story of how she ultimately had to learn to put people first and appreciate their value. She believes that this attitude enables her team members to help each other get through difficult times. She said:

“We now see more of the person and understand her better, so when she is hurting-and therefore work is suffering-we can support her through difficult times. I’ve known this, more or less, in my head but never really felt it like I do now. We miss the boat if we don’t take the time to see and listen to the person we are working with. And we need to ensure that people we hire get good skills training and that the team works well together. When it does, I don’t have to do all the work showing people that I value them-the team does this for me-and for themselves.”

Making people the central point of any leader’s thinking and actions is not about making it “easy” for others or being “soft” on moving the organization and its projects forward. Leadership includes making tough decisions that sometimes set very tight performance deadlines, pushing people beyond their comfort zones or letting staff go. The leader in the previous example reflected on how she recently accepted the resignation of a staff member-and felt it was the best thing for everyone. “We had explored several options for her to contribute to the organization,” she said. “But in the end, it became clear to everyone that while she was a good worker, no amount of money or discussion was going to make her career with us work. She wanted something different, and our conversations helped her figure this out. She left feeling good about her treatment here.”

Practising professional intimacy

Leaders inherit a complex relationship with their followers, who project a range of emotions on the leader-from adulation or respect, to anger, fear and distrust, to indifference and disrespect. What emotions are prevalent at a particular time and place depend on the work and personal circumstances that are in play, and the actions and personalities of the leaders and their staff. When the situation is emotionally charged, there is a high probability it will become toxic. When leaders try to defuse it, their challenge is to achieve a balance between intruding into the hurt feelings of others (“taking on” the pain of the other person) and being detached such that others perceive the leader as cold and unfeeling, as not really caring about the negative situation they are in.

Leaders are most effective when they use their emotions as a guide to respond to what has transpired and to its effect on others. They have a positive impact on the situation when they act with “professional intimacy,” showing care and concern without clouding their judgment by over-identifying with the sufferer.

Jim, a project manager, sat in his office one morning facing Kendall, a distraught member of his team. Kendall was telling Jim how demoralized he felt about the way his report had been torn to shreds at a recent management meeting. He was considering quitting, since, as he put it, “No one here appreciates my efforts. I don’t see the point of working all these long hours just to get creamed by a group of people who haven’t even taken the time to read carefully what I wrote.” Jim knew that Kendall did good work and that he had received something of a bum rap at the meeting. At the same time, the report he gave had weaknesses, and by addressing them quickly and bringing the report back to the next meeting, Jim figured that Kendall would be successful and get considerable satisfaction from that outcome. He registered the deep disillusionment that was creeping into Kendall’s demeanour. He’d been there himself at other points in his career. He wanted to reassure Kendall and to help him get back on track. Jim knew the politics of the place, and though he was tempted, he understood that it would be unwise to join Kendall’s attack on the managers. It would not help anyone to get through this situation, least of all Kendall.

“I understand how you are feeling, Kendall,” Jim said, leaning forward, “and I can see the points you are making. Your anger and disillusionment is to be expected.” Jim paused, giving Kendall a chance to respond. When he nodded but said nothing, Jim spent several minutes going over what he knew from the report and what it would take to “tweak it” to make it more acceptable to the company. “Why don’t you take the rest of the afternoon off, Kendall?” he said. “Then, if you feel up to it, take another crack at the draft and let’s discuss it when I have looked it over.” Kendall left the office with a bit more of a spring in his stride. He made a successful pitch at the next management meeting.

We don’t need to agree on the tactics used here to see that what Jim is trying to do as a leader is to be responsive to his team member’s emotional state, while at the same time helping him to focus on a positive way out of his pain. He wants to reclaim Kendall’s emotional commitment and he wants him to contribute to the organization’s agenda. He is practising a form of professional intimacy. He does not give in to any temptation to join Kendall in his misery. Nor is he so organizationally focused that he discounts and deflects the very real distress of the team member and his desire to quit.

Leaders who have high emotional intelligence know that people’s pain can come from almost anywhere in their lives. The capacity to read emotions well and attune to the person and the situation are skills that enable leaders to help sufferers address their situation and then move on. In this role, leaders resemble counsellors or therapists, and like these professionals, they bring a degree of disciplined compassion and intimacy to their work.

Planting seeds

Leaders need to think strategically about issues of emotional pain and toxicity in their organizations. Typically, it is the leader, rather than his or her staff, who has a bigger picture of what is going on at work. Part of being aware and alert as a leader is to anticipate change, not merely to react to it. This suggests an ability to anticipate what may become painful for employees or for the organization itself at some later point of change. This is especially important given the reality of organizations today, where rapid change often takes them into uncharted territories, with unknown effects. Moreover, there will always be people in organizations whose personal lives are falling apart for some reason. There will always be “grief in the room,” be it in the office or at home or in a hospital.

If handling pain is something leaders need to anticipate, then the ground must be prepared and the seeds of a healthy response planted. Sam, a leader at a marketing firm, models this skill of planting seeds of leadership in his organization, which is run by a command-and-control type of CEO adept at producing toxicity.

Sam saw that customer focus was a particular area of weakness that he knew the company would need to address at some point in the future. Predictably, the CEO resisted Sam’s ideas and “just humoured me when I spoke to him about them.” Nevertheless, Sam was able to seed the ground. He constantly raised the issue at management meetings, and “through the leadership of others coming through our training program who have caught fire on this issue, the groundwork was laid.”

Sam saw his efforts pay off when the CEO returned from a business conference and announced to the group, “I heard this wonderful speaker, and we’ve got to get him here.” It turned out that the speaker had been talking about making the very same changes in customer service that Sam had been pressing for the last five or six years-but that the CEO had ignored until now. “We were all sitting in the room thinking, ‘Hallelujah. It’s about time,'” Sam said. “But the best part was that the organization was ready for him. The groundwork had been laid. We created a scenario in which we decided that’s where the troops were going to be, and now we’ve finally arrived, thanks to that groundwork.”

Pushing back

Gary had walked into the meeting with a baseball bat, and he asked the employees, “Tell me everything you hate.” . . . They pointed at the cameras. And Gary took a swing with the baseball bat. Knocked the camera off the wall. . . . Then he says, Does anyone else want the bat?” And they threw blankets over the cameras and they destroyed all of them. And that started the whole conversation about cultural change. Now they haven’t had any turnover . . . in six months.
Charles O’Reilly and Jeffrey Pfeffer, Hidden Value (Harvard Business School Press, 2000)

Occasionally, leaders need to become surgeons and cut out the toxicity that is draining the health of the workplace. They minister to a sick system so that people who are affected can regain their confidence and their trust. That is the message of the story above.

The Benjamin Group, a Silicon Valley-based public relations firm, demonstrates its values by taking a stand on how employees are treated, not only by their colleagues and managers, but also their customers, suppliers and other business partners. A few years ago, the firm cancelled a million-dollar account-at that time, worth fully 20 per cent of its annual business. The client was inflicting great pain on employees, and the situation was decidedly toxic. Employees were startled that the firm would go so far, but they were energized too. Inspired by the knowledge that their company cared about their well-being, staff worked extra hard to bring in new clients.

Pushing back on a toxic source takes time and energy and not a little courage (something that all good leaders need to have). Dissipating the toxins that have built up and permeated the system and its people can require an intensive effort over a prolonged period. The benefits to employees and to the company can be enormous as staff respond with enthusiasm and loyalty to feeling protected and validated.

Acknowledging mistakes

A key point in healing a toxic situation occurs when those who are suffering see that the leader and the company validate a painful experience. (This is real. It has happened.) The second part of the story is the apology-when the leader acknowledges that the painful conditions that he or she created are wrong, and an assurance is given that it will not happen again. Such a formula can work wonders on a toxic situation created by a leader. This is what Pat did when he apologized to his team. It takes guts to do this sometimes, but it can make the difference between a continually unhealthy experience and a recovery that directly impacts on staff commitment and performance.

While not every leader is a natural pain manager or toxin handler or has the inclination to be one, the practices above are ones that leaders can implement to handle employee pain in constructive ways. When leaders implement such practices, they can attend to their employees’ suffering in a timely way, and in some cases can even prevent it. The compassionate actions of leaders can contribute significantly to an emotionally healthy and energized workforce.