REAL PEACE IN TIMES OF STRESS / WORK
Beyond Stress Management
MICHAEL CARROLL’s step-by-step guide to transforming a toxic workplace.
thing you can count on about work is that it’s stressful. Tight
deadlines, limited resources, diverse personalities, and complex
problems naturally add up to a demanding, often disturbingly uncertain
situation, which we call “work.”
despite the inherently stressful nature of work, we often find
ourselves looking for a stress-free workplace—looking for “stress
reduction” techniques or “stress management” training. On one hand, our
search to eliminate stress at work is understandable, since in our
modern parlance “stress” is commonly used to describe just about any
disturbing aspect of life. But if we want to get to the heart of what is
really bothering us about workplace stress, we will need to
differentiate between what is stressful at work and what is toxic.
at its very core, is about being alive. Whether we’re getting a job,
falling in love, or just being a body in space, all of us face
stressors— some annoying, some exhilarating, some devastating. At work,
stress is woven into every demand, every deadline, and every goal.
on the other hand, is what causes disease, death, and confusion. When
toxicity is woven into the fabric of our work life, we feel threatened,
mistreated, and ill. So, in order to build and sustain healthy
organizations and revitalize our natural sense of well-being at work, we
need to stop looking for a stress-free workplace and instead clean up
up workplace toxicity is about healing rather than harming, being wise
rather than correct, enriching rather than weakening. It’s about
cultivating healthy workplace emotions like fulfillment, creativity,
humor, and passion, and skillfully eliminating dangerous emotions like
insensitivity, betrayal, bullying, and fear. Cleaning up toxicity at
work is a tough but vital role requiring awareness, gentleness, and
ingenuity. To describe a person who takes on this role, Peter Frost
coined the term “toxic handler” in his book Toxic Emotions at Work.
“The work of toxic handlers is about responding compassionately to pain
in their organizations in order to minimize or prevent it, to identify
it, contain it, remove it, or find ways for people to live with it
constructively,” says Frost. “Their compassion takes the form of
noticing and feeling the pain of someone else and then acting in a way
that is intended to help the other person heal.”
a skillful toxic handler at work need not be a full-time job. In fact,
it can be as simple as exploring toxic circumstances with a bit of
compassionate reflection. Here’s a simple three-step contemplation you
may want to use to more skillfully handle workplace toxicity without
being poisoned by it.
Step 1 : Stack Your Emotions
we confront a work-related conflict or problem that has gone toxic, the
first thing we need to do is distinguish between our emotions and the
business issue, and we can do that by stacking. Imagine you’re working
with Raoul and he’s shouting at you. To stack your emotions, you might
say to yourself, “Raoul is really angry and distrustful right now and
I’m feeling very defensive, but let me set my feelings of defensiveness
aside for a moment. My feelings will unget my attention later, but for
right now let me just ‘stack them’ off to the side.”
Step 2 : Identify the Actual Business Issue
we have temporarily sidelined our emotions, we can reflect on what
precisely is going on. In our situation with Raoul, we might realize
that he’s angry because he was blindsided by budget cuts. So the
immediate issue at hand is not Raoul’s anger, though such anger sure
appears to be urgent. The business issue is actually the budget. Despite
all the confusing feelings, this is the issue at hand. By recognizing
and sidelining the confusing feelings, we create psychological space for
us to attend to the business that needs our focus.
Step 3: Listen to the Pain from a Position of Health
separating the toxic emotions—ours and others—from the actual business
issue, we become available to listen carefully to Raoul and get the full
flavor of what he is feeling and saying. From this compassionate
perspective, we can see the business issue clearly and at some point we
can offer Raoul our well-being, which could be as simple as a smile or a
nod or as powerful as an apology.
the end, stress is not what makes work grim, dismal, or oppressive;
rather it’s the healthy or toxic emotions we choose to bring to the task
that makes all the difference. It’s really up to us.
Michael Carroll is the author of the forthcoming book Fearless at Work.