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Managing Emotions and Moving Forward: Healing from Toxic Workplace Experiences

While most work environments seek to promote collaborative cultures of trust and respect, occasionally toxic incidents can still occur that undermine these positive cultures. Whether due to interpersonal conflicts, abuse of power, or broader organizational dysfunction, these negative workplace experiences can create lasting emotional wounds. However, with careful self-reflection and a commitment to growth, recovery is possible.

Today we will explore strategies for leaders and employees to process emotions, repair damages, and move forward constructively after toxic workplace incidents.

Understanding Emotional Processing

The first step toward healing involves allowing oneself to experience and process the full range of emotions stemming from the toxic experience. According to affective events theory, significant work events can trigger powerful positive or negative emotions that directly impact employee well-being and performance (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996). Toxic incidents understandably generate negative emotions like hurt, anger, shame or fear. However, avoiding or suppressing these feelings prevents closure and prolongs distress (Gross & John, 2003). Leaders must give permission for emotional processing while balancing productivity needs.

Emotional processing involves:

  • Identifying specific feelings through journaling or counseling

  • Validating one's experience without indulging resentment

  • Expressing feelings appropriately through respectful confrontation or complaint

  • Forgiving oneself and others while holding people accountable

Allowing time and space for emotional processing benefits all parties. For example, at Anthropic AI researchers openly discussed feelings of betrayal after the abrupt firing of their CEO to find resolution (Mckinney et al., 2021). With support, most can move beyond initial reactions to a calmer perspective.

Repairing Relationships and Rebuilding Trust

Toxic incidents often damage important work relationships, so rebuilding trust must be a priority. Leaders should promptly acknowledge any role in creating harm, apologize sincerely and commit to positive changes (Tomlinson, 2018). For injured parties, forgiveness may involve:

  • Accepting apologies as a sign of accountability while remaining clear-eyed

  • Prioritizing institutional changes over individual retribution

  • Focusing on reputation restoration through future actions rather than past mistakes

At Penguin Random House, CEO Markus Dohle met with staff to hear concerns and apologize after terminating a popular colleague, helping relieve tensions (McCrum, 2022). Over time, consistent responsible leadership can restore broken trust.

Healthy relationships also require direct communication to understand different perspectives and find common ground. For example, at Anthropic researchers agreed on practices preventing future uncertainty through respectful two-way dialog (Mckinney et al., 2021). Open discussion reconciles viewpoints to resolve issues rather than prolong conflicts.

Reflecting on Lessons Learned

Viewing traumatic workplace events through a learning lens can transform distress into personal and systemic growth. Leaders should model reflecting constructively on:

  • Warning signs that may have indicated emerging issues

  • Factors within their control that could have mitigated harm

  • Positive steps taken in response compared to alternatives considered

  • Ongoing changes needed to strengthen organizational culture and policies

For example, at Anthropic AI researchers, managers and executives reviewed factors allowing negative dynamics to develop and co-created new transparent governance processes (Mckinney et al., 2021). Such reflection identifies responsibility without blame to implement lasting improvements.

Individuals can also reflect on lessons for their own leadership. For instance, did impatience, pride or biases influence reactions exacerbating issues? Moving forward, what communication or relationship building skills seem most important to strengthen? Reframing toxic incidents as opportunities for self and systemic betterment facilitates real growth.

Focusing on Forward Progress

To complete the healing process, leaders must redirect energy from past harms into advancing a shared positive vision. This involves:

  • Celebrating signs of recovery, such as restored collaboration, to boost morale

  • Expressing optimism that struggles will make the culture stronger in the long run

  • Guiding constructive discussions on ways to further inclusion, care and accountability

  • Rewarding forward momentum through recognition, resources or empowerment

For example, at Anthropic AI new governance processes were paired with community appreciation events highlighting researchers' resilience (Mckinney et al., 2021). Keeping sights set on goals reconnects a dispirited group with its purpose and potential.

Individuals can similarly stay future-focused. What skills or knowledge was gained to become a better teammate or leader? What opportunities now exist to make real the organization's values through one's work? Re-engaging passions renews energy when bitterness could have persisted. Positive visions mobilize progress beyond harm.


Toxic workplace incidents shake foundations of trust and morale, requiring diligent efforts to heal. With compassion and fortitude, leaders can guide their organizations through processing emotions, repairing relationships, reflecting on lessons, and focusing collective efforts on an forward-looking vision. Examples from various industries show practically applying research-backed strategies like sincere apologies, transparent dialog, cooperative reviews and celebrating recovery can restore equilibrium. While scars may remain, prioritizing personal and systemic growth over resentment enables individuals and cultures to emerge even stronger. Consistent caring leadership helps communities recover and thrive after adversity.


  • Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(2), 348.

  • McCrum, D. (2022, March 2). Penguin Random House staff protest firing of talented executive. The Guardian.

  • Mckinney, A., Liu, G., Cheng, C., & Gray, J. (2021, January 14). Anthropic's governance journey. Anthropic.

  • Tomlinson, E. C. (2018). To apologize or not to apologize: Effects of the apology-integrity paradox on perceptions of transgressors, victims, and victim-transgressor relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(8), 1141-1157.

  • Weiss, H. M., & Cropanzano, R. (1996). Affective events theory: A theoretical discussion of the structure, causes and consequences of affective experiences at work. Research in organizational behavior, 18, 1-74.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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