Sun, Nov 23, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Getting rid of emotional poison in the office

When feelings of anger and bewilderment surface at work, it might be time for an emotional audit

By Kate Hilpern  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

Emotions have no place at work. At least, that is what we are led to believe. But, as most of us know, rationality does not always rule in the office. Today's demands, such as meeting tight deadlines, coping with increased workloads and dealing with difficult colleagues can generate strong feelings, including anger, frustration and bewilderment.

Walk into some offices and you can cut the atmosphere with a knife. This is why, according to a growing number of occupational psychologists, it is time for British workplaces to introduce regular "emotional audits" to help managers deal with emotions that turn toxic.

"Toxic emotions drain vitality from individuals, teams and, eventually, the whole organization because they interrupt the workflow," says Tina Keifer, visiting professor in Organizational Behavior and HR at the University of Columbia.

"A failure to recognize symptoms of toxic emotions could lead to higher labor turnover, relatively poor health and low levels of creativity and performance," she says.

Peter Frost, author of Toxic Emotions At Work, provides an example. "Vivien, an office worker in a branch of a national financial institution, approached her boss for permission to attend the funeral of a family member, a young nephew tragically killed in an accident," he says.

"When told that the funeral was on the following Monday afternoon, the manager, preoccupied with company deadlines, at first refused the request. He needed her to attend a meeting on Monday and urged her to try to get the family to change the funeral to another day. Vivien, who had been close to the young boy, was devastated by this response. Eventually, her boss allowed her to attend the service, but the hurt she felt toward him lingered long after the incident," he says.

Toxic emotions can also occur on a wider scale, Frost says.

"Fred is an example of this. He was a gregarious new CEO with an open manner, who encouraged his managers to talk with him about their concerns," he explains.

"Some of his managers became sufficiently confident in their relationship with Fred that, when pressed, they gave him their views on two of the vice-presidents who, while technically competent, created disruption and severe unhappiness among the staff. Fred then shared these views with the vice-presidents, including `who said what about whom.' The vice-presidents retained their positions and found ways to punish the managers who had talked with their CEO," he says.

You can't get rid of negative emotions at work, admits Frost, but you can prevent them becoming toxic.

"Negative emotions are as inevitable as positive emotions and are arguably just as useful," he says. "For example, negative emotions may be created by not being able to work professionally due to interruptions or ineffective procedures. From a psychological point of view, they are vital for dealing with difficult situations as they help us to identify what is important."

It is when negative emotions turn toxic that problems set in, he says. "This happens when they are handled inadequately due to insensitive or incompetent behavior of managers and colleagues, as in Vivien's and Fred's case."

Enter "emotional audits" -- the brainchild of Rob Briner, a reader in organizational psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London. These aim to ensure that managers are trained to deal with their employees' emotions to prevent negative feelings turning toxic. So how do they work?

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