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The Role of the “Toxic Handler”

Back in 1999, Peter Frost and Sandra Robinson wrote an article in Harvard Business Review entitled “The Toxic Handler: Organizational Hero – and Casualty”.  They describe ‘toxic handlers’ as the people who ‘manage the pain of others’ at work. They are particularly important and relevant at time of major organisational change such as mergers, acquisitions and company reorganisations. Frost and Robinson interviewed and observed more than 70 executives who were either ‘toxic handlers’ themselves or who have managed people in the role. The authors identified five ways that ‘toxic handlers’ alleviate organisational pain:

  • They listen empathetically. They listen with compassion and non-judgementally when staff confront them in anger and frustration.
  • They carry the confidences of other. They allow colleagues to off-load and walk away less troubled knowing that their anguished words will be held in confidence.
  • They work behind the scenes to prevent pain. They are proactive in working to prevent or reduce organisational pain.
  • They reframe difficult messages. The authors provide the example of the ‘toxic handler’ told by his boss to “Tell those idiots to get their act together and finish the job by Friday or else they are all doomed.” Instead the manager brought his staff together and put the boss’s directive as “The boss needs us to complete this task by Friday so let’s put our heads together and see what we need to do to meet the deadline.”
  • They suggest solutions. ‘Toxic handlers’ don’t just listen they also work to provide solutions and energise demotivated staff.

This article struck a real cord with me at the time, as I had been directly involved in a large banking merger in the early 90’s and also had spent the previous few years leading some major change projects, involving restructuring and redundancies. I have myself witnessed such ‘toxic handlers’ operate in the financial organisations in which I was employed. They truly are the unsung heroes that can exist at multiple levels in the organisation – from senior leadership roles to junior supervisor positions. As stated in the HBR article these ‘toxic handlers’ are frequently not acknowledged due to the culture of toughness that infuses many organisations and where the highest value is often placed on technical competence.

Emotional intelligence is too often seen as irrelevant – the inaccurate perception being that it doesn’t show up on the bottom line. In business life it can often be seen as weakness for senior executives to show gratitude to those who practice emotional caretaking at work. Raising awareness about the ‘toxic handler’ role, in situations where organisational pain is present, requires explicit acknowledgement of the need for the role and a proper forum for discussion of how it should be supported.

Ultimately, as stated in the article, a critical ingredient of any consciousness-raising about toxic handling is the recognition that effective pain management can- and does – contribute to the bottom line. Training and coaching is crucial for executives in the frontline of significant change initiatives, such as reorganisations, restructuring, downsizing or M&A activities. This should not be of the usual technical variety, but should focus on the emotional competencies required to provide supportive leadership in such environments.

The concluding chapter of the article by Frost and Robinson provides some positive reassurance. They state that when they began their research they expected resistance – even denial – from senior executives. While they indicate that they did find some of that, they more often found executives aware that their organisations spawned anger, sadness, fear and confusion as a matter of course. They say that the predominant feeling unearthed by their research was that of relief as executives indicated that this was the first time they had been able to talk about organisational pain. Emotional pain comes not only from downsizing, bad bosses and change but also accompanies the commitment and passion of individuals striving for excellence.

“In the last decade or so, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and abilities to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships.”    –John Gottman

Performance – has a mind-body dimension

“Emotions adjust not only our mental but also our bodily states. This way we are prepared to react swiftly to the dangers, but also the opportunities such as pleasurable social interactions present in the environment. Awareness of the corresponding bodily changes may subsequently trigger the conscious emotional sensations, such as the feeling of happiness.”

The above quote is from one of the leaders, Professor Lauri Nummenmaa, of a recent Finnish study which found that most emotions trigger strong bodily sensations which map to different parts of the body, depending on the particular emotion.

This study again reinforces the mind – body relationship and the feedback loop that exists between the two.  Embodied cognition, the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, is one of the more counter-intuitive ideas in cognitive science. In sharp contrast is dualism, a theory of mind famously put forth by Rene Descartes in the 17th century when he claimed that “there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.” In the proceeding centuries, the notion of the disembodied mind flourished. From it, western thought developed two basic ideas: reason is disembodied because the mind is disembodied and reason is transcendent and universal.

Relevant to this and our own success in performing – avoiding feeling anxious in anticipation of tasks such as speaking in public or meeting with a boss. In another recent study by Dr. Alison Brooks of Harvard Business School she discovered that performance anxiety is better dealt with by telling yourself out-loud to get excited rather than to calm down.  A number of scenarios were used in the study to induce performance anxiety, including public speaking and it was found that the subjects who used the excitement technique gave longer speeches and were more persuasive, competent and relaxed.

“The way we talk about our feeling has a strong influence on how we actually feel.” Dr. Alison Brooks

Fear of poor performance is a “state of arousal” that is closer to the state of excitement than to the feeling of calm. Thus it is better to view anxiety as excitement rather than trying to calm down to combat performance anxiety. Individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g., saying “I am excited” out loud) or simple messages (e.g., “get excited”), which lead them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mind-set (as opposed to a threat mind-set), and improve their subsequent performance,


SOCIAL : A Book that every Leader should read

  • Gallup recently estimated that poor manager-employee relations are costing the US economy $360 billion a year in lost productivity
  • “Knowing that we work in an organisation that cares for us, for other employees and for the community creates attachments that are surprisingly effective at keeping us engaged & motivated.”

The Gallup estimate and the quote above are both taken from Matthew Lieberman’s recent book “ Social”. He is one of the foremost authorities globally in the study of Social Neuroscience. His book is fascinating and very readable but most interesting from a business perspective is the chapter entitled “ The Business of Social Brains”.  Lieberman gives his support to David Rock’s SCARF model which I have previously blogged about but he focuses on the three social components of the model – Status, Relatedness and Fairness.

In relation to status he makes the point that many executives incorrectly assume that employees only seek out status because it’s a sign that more money will follow. However, Lieberman suggests that scientific evidence points to the fact that status is an end in itself. He elaborates by referring to a study undertaken by economist Ian Larkin which demonstrated that 68% of sales staff in a specific enterprise vendor were willing to forego $27,000 ( circa 20% of salary) in sales commissions to become members of an exclusive group. This elite group achieved few tangible / financial benefits but were recognised by the CEO in a communication to all staff and a gold star was put on their business cards and stationery. They also got a trip together to an island resort.  Obviously the $27,000 foregone in each case went straight to the bottom line of the company.

With regard to relatedness (which he calls connection) Lieberman makes reference to the fact that organisations often talk about Human Capital but fail to recognise the value of Social Capital. Another economist Arent Greve studied three Italian consulting companies to find out if social capital played a role in optimising performance.  He measured the Human Capital and Social Capital of the staff in these companies. In two of the companies Social Capital accounted for all the benefits in productivity. In the third company Human Capital did have an effect but this was augmented to the degree to which the person also had strong Social Capital.

The extent to which employees perceive decisions to be fair in the workplace can account for 20% of the differences in their productivity. Numerous studies have shown that individuals will forego monetary reward rather than accept, what they consider as an unfair offer.

John Zenger, a leadership expert, asked thousands of employees to score the leadership effectiveness of their boss. Zenger found that if employees rated a manager as very high based on “focus on results” there was still only a small (14%) chance that the manager would be rated among the top 10% of leaders overall. However, if in addition the employees rated the same manager’s ability to “ build relationships” very highly then the likelihood of that person being rated as a great leader jumped to 72%.  Lieberman makes the point, which I would fully agree with, that social skills improve the value of other competencies because they allow leaders to manage the social and emotional wellbeing of their employees.

In a recent survey conducted by the Management Research Group and the Neuroleadership Institute, the competencies of thousands of employees were examined. More than 50% rated their bosses and peers as having a high degree of “goal focus” but less than 1% were rated high on both “ goal focus” and “interpersonal skills”. It is clear that technical skills and short term results, generated through command and control management structures, are still more highly rated in many organisations than social capital and sustainability.

Emotions Come First, Reason Follows

I finished an tome recently called the The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer. It opens with some disturbing statistics based on a Harris Poll of 2,303 people in the US in 2009, in which they were asked to indicate, for each category whether they believe in it, or not. The table reflects the percentage of believers in the following sample of the categories:

God                     82% Angels                    72% Evolution                45% Creationism          40%
UFO’s                  32% Ghosts                   42% Devil                        60% Witches                 23%

Why are these figures disturbing ? Well, for example, they indicate that while only 45% of this large sample survey believe that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is true while nearly the same percentage (40%) believe that the earth was only formed just over 6,000 years ago and that humans were created in our current form!

Shermer’s thesis is that our brain has evolved as a ‘belief machine’ and he explains why it was a more effective survival strategy for our ancestors to believe rather than to doubt and be wrong. Our brains are continually looking out to create patterns from our sensory input. Shermer calls this tendency ‘patternicity’. The other tendency which he considers critical to our desire to believe he calls ‘agenticity’. This is our predisposition to infuse these patterns with meaning and intention. He provides a wealth of studies supporting his proposition.

At a neural level he postulates that the neurotransmitter dopamine is most directly related to our tendency to believe. Shermer includes a study by Brugger & Mohr at the University of Bristol that found that individuals with high levels of dopamine are more likely to find significance in coincidences and pick out meaning and patterns where there are none. The theory is that the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) is increased by dopamine. That is the amount of signal the brain will detect in background noise as dopamine increases the ability of neurons to transmit signals between one another.  In extreme cases this leads to symptoms of psychosis.

The underlying process that is heavily supported by the evidence in Michael Shermer’s book is our tendency is to form a belief first, often for emotional reasons, and then subsequently to rationalise to ourselves and others why such a belief is valid.  Interestingly this is a similar process that Dan Ariely explains in his book “ The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty “ where individuals may act in some dishonest way and then develop stories, through reasoning, as to why such action was justified. He says that creative people find better stories to justify their ‘flexible’ morality. This latter point is one that Shermer also makes regarding our belief system and why high intelligent people often have stronger beliefs, even about strange things.

We are, essentially, emotional beings first but who also have the capacity for great intellectual reasoning. Our primary focus, therefore, should be to improve our emotional intelligence. This will then enable us to make better use of our IQ, ie our powers of reasoning.

“In the last decade or so, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and abilities to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships.”
–From Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child – John Gottman

Face the Fear, and Grow

Nelson Mandela, 1918 – 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

In my work as an executive coach the fear most expressed by senior executives is the ‘fear of being found out’. The insecurity of having achieved high office and feeling that one is not worthy or capable of living up to the role.  However, as Nelson Mandela states in the quote above, perhaps there is an even greater fear that we are capable beyond our wildest dreams.

Lack of Fear

Imagine if you never felt fear, no matter how terrifying the experience. Well, there is, at least, one woman who lives without fear.  To protect her identity she is known as SM in scientific circles.

Antonio Damasio, a world renowned neurologist, and others, at the University of Iowa, have been working with SM for over a decade. She is a 44-year old mother-of-three, who suffers from a rare genetic condition called Urbach-Wiethe disease, which has caused parts of her brain to harden and waste away. This creeping damage has completely destroyed her amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing emotion, particularly fear.  Nothing now frightens her. For example, while SM was walking through an urban park at night, a man yelled at her to come over to the bench where he was sitting. Instead of bolting or freezing with fear, as most people would, SM walked over to him. When he then pulled out a knife and held it to her throat, she remained calm. “She didn’t freak out like anyone else would with a knife held to her throat by a drugged-out man,” said Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at The University of Iowa.

However, from an evolutionary perspective, fear has developed for good reason which is to protect us from harm.  It has, of course, a significant downside, particularly in our modern world. It is the emotion that underlies stress, and our fears can have a major debilitating effect on how we live our lives. It is the source of all our daily anxieties.

Feel the Fear

In her 1987 classic , “Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway” Susan Jeffers talks about the 3 responses to fear:

  1. Try to avoid anything that may cause Fear

  2. Wait for our Fears to magically disappear

  3. Face our Fears and overcome them

Of course, there is only one meaningful response to fear and that is, to face up to it courageously.

Here are 6 ways to consider in facing up and ‘doing it anyway’ :

-          Try to identify the underlying cause

-          Fear is an emotion and therefore resides in feelings rather than rational thoughts.

-          Accept your Fears

-          Admitting our failures helps us to better accept our fears of failing.

-          Recognise that fear is the price of personal growth

-          We somehow have this crazy idea that we can eventually rid ourselves of fear. If you want to continue to grow and develop, then you will encounter fear the rest of your life. The great news is that each time you ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ your confidence grows and it helps you overcome fear again in the future. There is something particularly exhilarating about confronting a fear head-on and overcoming it.

-          Become passionate about succeeding

-          Desire propels you to go where you’re fearful and to do what you’re scared to do.

-          Focus on what you can control

-          Very important to recognise what you have control over. For example, you can control your attitude but often you cannot control the action of others.

-          Feed the right emotion and starve the wrong one

-          As previously mentioned fear helps keep us from harm but it is also many times a barrier to us progressing. You can weaken its influence on such occasions by starving it. In this way we can strengthen the impulse of courage that resides in all of us.

Let’s end on a relevant and wonderful quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D.Roosevelt, and an inspirational person herself:

“ You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself ‘ I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it. If you fail anywhere along the line it will take away your confidence. You must make yourself succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

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