Have you ever left a meeting where your boss behaved poorly and said something like, "What he really meant to say was ... "

Or gotten an email that made you feel anxious and frantic--because your boss was going off on someone who didn't deserve it, and you knew you'd have to clean it up if you wanted that person to stay on the project at all?

If so, you may have a toxic boss--and you may be a toxic handler.

The term "toxic handler" first came from a 1999 Harvard Business Review article. The piece outlined the "heroic" lengths to which toxic handlers go to to keep their teams functioning. 

Suzy Welch, who was an editor at the Harvard Business Review at the time, explained the role as being "a job likely handed to you without you having been asked, and one you should shed as soon as humanly possible." 

According to Harvard researchers Peter J. Frost and Sandra L. Robinson, toxic handlers emerge out of organizational pain, and can exist either because of a toxic boss or toxic situation (i.e. the issue is larger than that one toxic boss). 

If it's a toxic boss, the handler is usually close in the command structure to the boss--a second-in-command type. The person is often a manager, with both colleagues and direct reports.

Being a toxic handler requires an enormous amount of energy; it's like being a human buffer. You absorb the negative energy coming at you from both above and below, since those below are often stressed and complaining about the toxic boss. 

As Welch puts it, it's like toxic handlers are working their own full-time job, plus an "unhealthy full-time side hustle."

It was clear the researchers struck a chord with the publication of their piece. After the article went live, Welch said, "You cannot believe the amount of feedback we got. Email after email saying, 'This is me.' Or more commonly, 'This was me.'"

Countless toxic handlers reported on their experience leaving their positions. Why? According to Welsh, it's because "99 percent of the time, being a toxic handler a dead-end gig. First of all, it's emotionally draining. But just as important, in time, most jerk bosses do get fired. And usually their toxic handlers are collateral damage that go out the door with them."

According to the researchers, toxic handlers help ease organizational pain in five specific ways. If you find yourself doing these things, you may be one: 

1. You listen empathetically

You're the person people come to when they're upset about the toxic boss. You create a safe space for them to vent. Toxic handlers listen without judgment, allowing others to express themselves safely. 

2. You suggest solutions

After listening in a nonjudgmental way, you come up with helpful ways to ease pain and smooth the way in the future. There's only so much you can do about a toxic boss or situation, but a toxic handler help do what they can.

3. You try to prevent pain before it happens

You're attuned. You're attuned to the human beings in the organization as well as to larger issues. So you'll advocate for things like transferring a talented worker who's struggling under a toxic manager into another department that has a better one. You know the organization shouldn't lose this person--and that they're suffering.

4. You hold the secrets of others sacred

"Toxic handlers can be like priests," say the researchers. By listening to and keeping the confidences of others, you allow your colleagues and subordinates to feel unburdened with a sense of safety.

5. You reframe difficult messages

Toxic handlers are almost universally tactful. Skilled communicators, they're like diplomats who use the most positive translation to get a message across. For example, one handler's toxic boss said to him: "'Tell those idiots out there to get their act together and finish the job by Friday or else they're all doomed.'" That manager delivered the message as: "'The boss needs us to complete this task by Friday, so let's put our heads together and see what we need to do to meet this deadline.'" 

The fact is, being a toxic handler is intensely draining. In addition to being emotionally challenging, research also shows that it's physically dangerous. 

Dave Marsing, for example, was a toxic handler at Intel in the 1990s. He was put in a position to increase yield at a microprocessor fabrication plant, where rates were "bad and getting worse." Senior managers wanted change fast, employees were frustrated and anxious about unrealistic expectations, and Marsing was attempting to be a "'human bridge.'"

Two months after taking the job, Marsing had a near-fatal heart attack. He was 36 years old.

Manager after manager in the study reported health issues that included "bouts of depression, severe heart palpitations, chronic sleeplessness, and cases of pneumonia." 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but we're educated enough by now to grasp that stress can kill you. Study after study after study shows that when your stress hormones are elevated, your immune system is compromised--so you're more vulnerable to all different kinds of illnesses.

Plus, there's a major risk to your relationships. When you're stressed and anxious about work, you're less present with your family. You could lose the people you love if you're not connected.

The upshot? If you're a toxic handler, consider exiting the situation. Welch takes a very strong stand on this: she says to get out immediately.

Another good choice is to get therapy. Sometimes you're recreating a pattern from childhood (like covering for a toxic boss in the same way you used to smooth things over after an alcoholic parent did something damaging). You may not realize it consciously, and becoming aware of your past and how it's impacting your present reality is always a wise investment. 

Whatever you choose to do, know you're not alone.

Published on: Aug 1, 2019
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