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When toxic emotions are healing feelings: toxic culture and narratives of compassion in teaching children with emotional and behavioural difficulties

Research output: Working paper

  • Sharon Bolton
Publication date2005
Place of PublicationLancaster University
PublisherThe Department of Organisation, Work and Technology
<mark>Original language</mark>English

Publication series

NameOrganisation, Work and Technology Working Paper Series


A recent theme that emerges strongly in North American accounts concerning emotion in organisations is the encouragement of positive emotions and the creation of the emotionally intelligent and compassionate worker. In particular, the plea for 'narratives of compassion' (Frost et al. 2000) and 'high quality connections' (Cameron et al 2003) in organisations is intuitively appealing. Various pathways to the foundation of positive 'emotion ecologies' (Frost 2003) and 'virtuous organisational cultures' (Park and Peterson 2003) are suggested, which offer support and empathy to organisational members and promises of improved performance (Cameron, 2003; Fredrickson, 2003; Peterson and Seligman 2003). Little wonder that recent work from this group of thinkers is widely accepted in the practitioner community as an optimistic way forward, receiving little critical attention. This paper seeks to address a gap in current debates on the topic and empirically explore the notion of negative and toxic emotions in a particular organisational setting. Drawing on qualitative data collected from a group of teachers situated in a pupil referral unit (PRU) (North West England) for primary aged children with emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD) the paper reviews the ideas of toxic cultures and negative emotions and reveals some major and quite obvious flaws; not least the functional assumptions concerning the orderly nature of organisational life and the theoretical inadequacy of an approach that attempts to neatly label emotions as either negative or positive; toxic or healing (Bolton, 2005). The loud and harsh occupational culture at the PRU can readily be described as a 'toxic emotional ecology' and it is certainly the case that working with EBD children engenders what would be perceived as negative emotions of anger, aggression, despair. However, within this community there is also joy, warmth, nurturance and care and this paper contends that what might appear to be toxic emotions, in the working environment of the P