Making peace in the workplace

Frustrated by excessive demands at work?

Resentful of being passed over for a promotion?

Afraid of losing your job?

Never fear. A "toxic handler" may be near.

Two University of British Columbia researchers poking around at the underside of corporate life have identified this new kind of hero.

"Toxic handlers," Peter Frost and Sandra Robinson write in the current Harvard Business Review, are employees skilled in removing the "mental toxins" of the modern workplace.

The toxic handler - typically a senior manager but not the top boss - listens to troubled colleagues, invents creative solutions, and helps translate "mission impossible" into "mission accomplished."

And far from being too focused on feelings to get the job done, toxic handlers make a real contribution to the corporate bottom line - if only by helping keep good people from leaving.

One example the researchers cite is a computer executive in Europe who was asked to guide a 120-member team, already shell-shocked from downsizing, into using an "open concept" office layout. It was a radical idea since the employees were used to private offices.

The executive's approach was simply to listen to his colleagues: "He called himself 'Big Ears,' " says Mr. Frost

The transition went smoothly. "The only complaints were that there weren't enough trash cans," he says.

By combining interpersonal skills with technical competence, toxic handlers such as Mr. "Big Ears" help "manage organizational pain," Frost adds.

The article is full of metaphors of pain and poison. But it also identifies opportunities for leadership that can be practiced by employees at any level of an organization.

Frost ticks off four key points that came from his research: "The whole notion that there are people who step in and manage pain; the fact that there's a lot of pain out there to manage, largely as a result of corporate downsizing; the fact that the people I dealt with [in this research] were not 'bleeding hearts' or human-resources specialists; and that a lot of them got pretty sick."

It is critical that toxic handlers avoid taking on the pain themselves, say Frost and Robinson. Health-care professionals are typically trained to defend themselves against putting their own health at risk by getting too caught up in their patients' problems, Frost notes.

But toxic handlers in the corporate setting run the same risk of exposure without adequate defense. "Managers get sent in with pop guns and little tin shields," says Frost, when they should be protected "as if they were handling radioactivity."

Some toxic handlers might be described simply as office peacemakers.

Consider Alexandra, a vice president at a financial institution in New York. She spent half her time as peacemaker among colleagues.

The new MBAs coming to work there "always came in acting like they owned the world," she told researchers. "They tended to be pretty arrogant and heavy-handed with the secretaries and clerical workers. They offended them so much that they couldn't concentrate on their work.

"So first I had to explain to the staff that these young professionals were ... just seriously lacking in interpersonal skills. Then I had to pull the new MBAs into my office and help them understand that being a boss didn't mean bossing people around."

Frost's work on the concept of toxic handlers began when he noticed that he felt particularly run down and burnt out at the end of managing a stint in 1994.

Since then, he and Robinson have studied what he calls a "rolling sample" of about 70 toxic handlers in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Australia. By definition, their data are anecdotal, and they have no means of cross-checking their subjects' stories.

But Frost is confident, "We're onto something with authenticity."

Frost and Robinson insist that toxic handlers are not "enablers" who make it possible for their bosses to get away with bad behavior. But Frost sees the next phase of their research focusing on "the role of the toxic handlers in educating toxic bosses in order to improve the situation."

Toxic handler traits

*They listen.

* They identify and implement solutions.

* They see trouble coming and act behind the scenes before it hits.

* They are trusted with confidences.

* They reframe difficult messages - translating a boss's ill-considered outburst, for instance, into a set of instructions that can be acted upon.

Source: "The Toxic Handler: Organizational Hero - and Casualty" Harvard Business Review, July-August 1999.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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