UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 3 | Mar.
Handling Emotional Pain in the Workplace
UBC Commerce professor says managers must have compassion
By Erica Smishek
Cancer changed Peter Frosts 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 UBCs
Faculty of Commerce, is the author of Toxic Emotions at Work.
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.
Its not possible to have everyone happy all the
time at work. Youre 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. Frosts 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
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 cant recognize
the toll its 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
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 its been heroic without examining the consequences,
Frost explains. It focuses on charisma, on the positive
effects. The idea that there is pain and somehow its
been created in an organization doesnt 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
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 its not just the head. Its not just
the hands. Its 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