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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 3 | Mar. 6, 2003

Handling Emotional Pain in the Workplace

UBC Commerce professor says managers must have compassion

By Erica Smishek

Cancer changed Peter Frost’s life and his research. Now that research just might change organizational life for leaders and employees around the world.

Frost, a professor of organizational behaviour in UBC’s Faculty of Commerce, is the author of Toxic Emotions at Work. Just published by Harvard Business School Press, the book examines how organizations and their leaders cause emotional pain, how that pain affects performance and how to alleviate the pain before it becomes toxic.

“At some level, toxicity is everywhere,” says Frost from his office, a well-lit, jam-packed yet noticeably peaceful place filled with colourful artwork, artifacts and small treasures that speak volumes about this open-hearted and inspiring man.

“It’s not possible to have everyone happy all the time at work. You’re dealing with scarce resources, with competition, budgets, mergers. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem is when the toxicity goes untreated or barely treated and builds up. It pools and starts to affect everyone in the organization.

“Now people realize that it can also impact the bottom line.” Frost’s exploration of the need for compassionate managers to handle pain and conflict began in 1997. Diagnosed with an aggressive form of melanoma, he began thinking about the hidden forces that determine well-being and, in turn, how the behaviour of organizations and the people in them can affect the health of others at work.

While attending a seminar on health and healing, he heard seminar leader Dr. Joan Borysenko, co-founder of the Mind/Body Clinic at Harvard Medical School, talk about “sin eaters” -- people who pick up the toxicity in a family or in a work system.

“I got goose bumps,” he says. “The notion of people taking on others’ pain was like a light going on. It started me on this track.”

Thanks to hard work and a series of “serendipities” -- a presentation to the Academy of Management; a connection through a colleague to a Harvard Business Review editor; a magazine article on David Marsing, an Intel executive who suffered a stress-related near-fatal heart attack at 36; and a CEO of a multimillion-dollar company willing to tell his story; among others -- a book was born.

In Toxic Emotions at Work, Frost identifies emotional pain and sources of toxicity in organizations. He details the work of the “toxin handler” -- those managers or staff members who step into toxic situations and help heal the people who are hurting.

Toxin handling comes at considerable risk. Too often the toxin handlers become toxic themselves, becoming so immersed with the work of healing others that they can’t recognize the toll it’s taking on their own health. As well, the handling is usually done behind-the-scenes so an organization rarely rewards, encourages or supports the handler.

Frost outlines ways organizations can heal these handlers and provides strategies for organizations to distribute pain management more widely, alter practices and policies to fight toxicity and create a culture that institutionalizes compassionate responses to pain.

“Organizations reduce work to numbers and things and forget about people,” he says. “That process dehumanizes the equation… I want toxicity to become part of the agenda for discussion in organizations. I want organizations to ask ‘what can we do to mitigate this pain?’”

With initial translations in Portuguese and Italian, Frost believes the book has an international audience. It has already been hailed by business experts for breaking a taboo in business books by dealing with the darker side of leadership.

“A lot of the rhetoric around leadership has been heroic but it’s been heroic without examining the consequences,” Frost explains. “It focuses on charisma, on the positive effects. The idea that there is pain and somehow it’s been created in an organization doesn’t bear telling.

“Organizational cultures are macho. To talk about someone hurting runs the risk of being labeled ‘soft.’”

Born in South Africa, Frost started at UBC in 1975. Recognized with numerous academic and professional awards, including the 3M Canada Teaching Excellence Award and the 2002 MBA Professor of the Year, this husband, father, grandfather and body surfer has explored leadership and organizational culture for many years.

“One of the things that attracted me to organizational culture was that it brought expressions and emotions to the table. Prior to that, behaviour was assessed by stimulus and response, then by cognitive factors.

“But it’s not just the head. It’s not just the hands. It’s also the heart.”

While emotional engagement has guided his research, Frost says it is equally important in how he conducts his teaching and his life.

It comes as no surprise that a coffee mug on his desk carries the message, “Teaching is a journey into the mind through the heart.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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