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The Toxic Handler


Saving-000001271423 Full-300x2Some individuals play the role of toxic handlers in organisations, mediating between different parts but soaking up a lot of flak. This is precisely what Jesus did in the most important episode of his work on earth – his death on the cross.

An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review drew attention to the role played in many organizations by what the authors call toxic handlers.[1] They are individuals who absorb and soften emotional pain, voluntarily shouldering the sadness, frustration, bitterness and anger that are endemic to corporate life. They often soak up flak from a variety of directions. Sometimes a toxic handler is the chief executive’s front person, translating his or her seemingly irrational directives so that they can be put into action. Toxic handlers listen empathetically, suggest solutions, work behind the scenes, carry the confidences of others and reframe difficult messages. Although toxic handlers save organizations from self-destructing, they often pay a steep price – professionally, psychologically and sometimes physically.

I certainly know some Christians who play this type of corporate role. In doing so, they usually look for inspiration from one who absorbed poisonous bile without limit when he was crucified. Although this doesn’t make being a toxic handler easy, looking to Jesus can make it endurable.

It’s important to recognise that Jesus didn’t regard death as inevitable simply because he was on a collision course with religious and political authority. He saw his death as an essential component of his life’s work. He spoke of glorifying God on earth by completing the work God had given him (John 17:3). Geoff Shattock, founder of Worktalk, writes: ‘We don’t tend to think of death as work…but for Jesus of Nazareth this six hour period was literally a work “shift” which represented the climax of the work he was born to do.’[2]

Death at Work

It’s a sobering thought that Jesus died in the course of his work – as thousands of people did on 9/11, the two planes flying into the Twin Towers just as people working in financial services, insurance and restaurants were setting about their day’s business. The same is true of numerous industrial accidents throughout history. Christians believe that Jesus’ death was a unique event with special saving significance; and the method of his death – by crucifixion – was both extreme and, thankfully, now confined to the past. But the manner of his death is also relevant to events that happen on a regular basis in the world of work. Let’s reflect on various ‘words’ from the cross.

First, Jesus shows awareness of and concern for others despite the excruciating pain he was suffering. He sees his mother and best friend standing by the cross and commends them to each other’s care: ‘Woman, here is your son’ and ‘Here is your mother’ (John 19:26-27). There are colleagues at work who are drained of hope, trapped in a tangled weave of blame, denial and remorse. On the cross, we see Jesus bringing last-ditch encouragement to one of the men crucified with him. This bandit owned up to his own crimes (‘we are getting what we deserve for our own deeds’) in the act of rebuking his colleague who was joining in the derision of Jesus. Jesus in turn brings hope with the startling words, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43).

Second, Jesus speaks and breathes forgiveness. ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34). At work, we often encounter people who give us grief: they annoy us intensely, attack us incessantly or undermine our exploits. Such ‘enemies’ may include people we are trying to help. Allan Bussard, a Canadian social entrepreneur who set up a fair trade macadamia nut factory in Kenya, was rewarded for his efforts by workers stealing nuts and, when he moved location, sabotaging the second factory by blowing up a boiler. Stress, anger and bitterness can easily build up in a business environment. Jesus’ response is to pray (‘Father’) and to take the positive response of forgiving, not seeking revenge. Bussard has refused to abandon his enterprise in Kenya and, after two false starts, appears to have found a more cooperative workforce.

Third, Jesus does not hide his humanity behind a veneer of being religious. True to the experience of any crucified man, he is desperately thirsty and says so (John 19:28). Moreover, though he went to the cross believing this was God’s will for him, he may not have realised the sense of abandonment he would experience. So echoing Psalm 22, he cries from his personal darkness ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). When Christians don’t understand what God is up to, it is best to be honest. Sometimes we witness to others most effectively when we allow them into our doubts and questionings, making exploration of faith into a shared experience rather than pretending we have all the answers.

Fourth, Jesus is a completer-finisher. The episode of God-forsakenness seems to have passed, because Jesus’ stint on the cross ends with two sentences that express the sense of a job well done. ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46); ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). Jesus was able to commit himself and the work he had done to the Father God who had sustained him through it. The toxic handler had stayed the course.


[1] Peter Frost and Sandra Robinson, ‘The Toxic Handler – Organizational Hero – and Casualty’, Harvard Business Review, July-August 1999, pp.97-106.

[2] Geoff Shattock, ‘When You See It Like This You’re Never The same: A Revolutionary Understanding of Work’, FiBQ 12:3, p.4

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