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How To Deal With Toxic Emotions At Work

By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs.

Every workplace has toxic emotions floating around. Stuff happens, people feel things. Promotions are made or not made, layoffs are survived or not survived. People regularly say and do things that hurt other people, sometimes intentionally, but mostly unintentionally. All of this produces emotions that, when they’re not managed well, can become toxic.

What’s a person to do? Toxic emotions are distracting, destroy focus, and ruin your productivity. You can become convinced that emotions shouldn’t enter the workplace. But “it shouldn’t be happening” is about as useless a phrase as “I intended to do it.” What matters is what’s going on, not what we think should be going on.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that among the attention-demanding stuff that we deal with at work there will always be toxic emotions. Because we work with people, including ourselves. And people, including ourselves, have feelings that aren’t always well managed.

So how are we to arrange our work lives so that toxic emotions don’t take us over, making us unproductive and miserable? Peter Frost, who was an organizational psychologist at the University of British Columbia and the author of Toxic Emotions at Work (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), had some insightful answers to this question.

He said that every organization has “toxin handlers” who have a second job of buffering or dissipating toxic emotions so that others can get back to work. They recognize that “when people’s hearts are broken, their heads don’t work” (Frost, 2004). They might be HR professionals, but they are just as likely and maybe even more likely to be those empaths among the workers who can act quickly when they see something going wrong.

Toxin handlers have five basic tools in their tool chests, according to Frost. They listen attentively and compassionately, hold space for potential healing, buffer pain without passing it on, extricate others from difficult situations, and transform pain into positive action.

Often, they do all this without any sort of job title or acknowledgement that this is part of their work, but the reality is that without these toxin handlers, the toxic emotion overload would end the organization. These are the immune cells of the organizational body, and they rarely get the credit they deserve.

Not only do they rarely gimage001et the credit they deserve, they rarely get the support they need in order to continue their essential work. A self-identified toxin handler in a high-tech company is quoted as saying, “I can help others, but I can’t seem to help myself. I keep seeing people suffering from the cruelty and indifference of their bosses, from stupid rules and decisions. I’m tired of being the one people turn to when the ‘s— hits the fan.’ Whom do I turn to?” (Frost, 2004).

Frost pointed out that for too many organizations, toxic emotions are left unrecognized. So toxin handlers go underground, which means that no one notices when they are becoming too compromised to manage toxins. He said that there are two fixes: 1) for toxin handlers to name their work, describing their toxin handling work in professional terms, and 2) for organizations to admit they have toxic emotions running around and appreciate the essential help of the toxin handlers.

He pointed out that saying, “I had a succession of unhappy staff come through my office to tell me their troubles and we used up a lot of Kleenex,” makes the work of toxin handling sound like it is a distraction from productivity rather than essential for it. Rephrasing what happened could create a world of difference. He offered this alternative description for the same situation, “I spent quite a bit of time working with the team this morning. The recent layoffs have caused a lot of pain in the group and unless I address it we won’t be able to move forward productively. I believe I made progress today, and I can see that people are beginning to pay more attention to targets again” (Frost, 2004).

Using such “language of competence” to describe her work helped one engineer who was not getting credit for toxin handling. She started to talk about her work with people as “interfacing efforts” and at each staff meeting she’d give an “interfacing update,” which then became part of the weekly agenda.

Finally, Frost urged organizations to offer support and appreciation for toxin handlers. They can suggest support groups, coaches, and therapists and acknowledge out loud that their efforts are necessary, appreciated, and help drive productivity. Once toxin handlers are taken care of in this way and feel supported by their organizations, the culture itself begins to feel more supportive – as the entire organization has acknowledged the reality of toxic emotions and the vulnerability of working for and among human beings.

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Peter J. Frost.


NOTE: While writing this blog post, I kept focused on my work via the scientifically designed Water audio channel created by Focus@Will labs.

About Julia Mossbridge:

I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and my upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.



Frost, P. J. (2004). Handling Toxic Emotions: New Challenges for Leaders and their Organization. Organizational Dynamics, 33(2), 111-127.


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