The right way to vent at work

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Summary

  • How to safely unload all the stresses and frustrations of this moment, without hurting your career

Sometimes, you just have to let it all out. But should you really vent about your arduous commute, insufferable boss and disappointing cost-of-living adjustment—at work?

There is much to grouse about these days and, man, can it feel delicious. Sharing frustrations and spewing complaints can be cathartic, bonding and even productive. Who needs toxic positivity when you can unload your way forward?

Venting can be risky, though. Confide in the wrong person and your hurt feelings and trivial grievances become team gossip. Complain too often and you’ll infect the whole office with your gripes, prompting your co-workers to vent about you. Suddenly, you’re in a spiral.

There’s a right way to blow off steam, says Liane Davey, a Toronto-based industrial-organizational psychologist. There’s no need to pretend everything is sunny all the time, but if you must air your annoyances, do so carefully and consciously, says Dr. Davey, who coaches executive teams through conflict.

Don’t vent to your boss, or to colleagues below you in the org. chart, she advises—that will just spark fighting between teams. Pick someone you trust, who isn’t already entangled in the situation that triggered you.

Focus the most revealing parts of your rant around yourself and how you’re feeling. Keep your comments about co-workers and bosses objective. For example, instead of saying, “Bob was rude," note that Bob interrupted you, and that made you feel like he doesn’t have confidence in your work. Expressing yourself that way ensures you come off as mature, Dr. Davey says, and not flinging blame.

Wrap up with an action or plan. Do you need to talk with the co-worker who lobbed the comment that set you off, or slip out for a walk to further dial down the pressure?

In addition to blessing us with extra fodder for complaints, the past few years have multiplied the ways in which we can broadcast them. Type an angry missive in Slack, shoot off an agitated voice text to your partner, grab your co-worker in the hallway the one day a week you’re in the office together, eyes radiating: “That meeting just sent me over the edge."

Keep it off-screen if you can, since anything written will always be risky, Dr. Davey notes. Play it safe and try venting to yourself first in a voice memo.

“Yell into your phone," she advises. Play it back privately. Ask yourself, “Do I sound ridiculous?" Then hit delete.

Trejon Dunkley, who works for a real-estate firm in Mesa, Ariz., used to gripe about everything from politics to her personal life on her social-media accounts.

“I would just find myself opening my Twitter and treating it like a diary," the 28-year-old says. She kept getting embroiled in online arguments and realized that exposing her deepest emotions to strangers only raised her aggravation. She quit social media about a year ago, and rediscovered the joy of screaming in her closet and scrawling illegibly in a journal.

“There’s a visceral feeling of the anger translating out through my hands," she says.

Venting to others has upsides, too. Cathryn Tusow still remembers how dishing about rough customer calls—the guy who followed up every morning for three months, the one who threatened to break her knees—helped her feel less alone during her years as a customer-service agent.

She and her call-center co-workers had little else in common, but they understood the job in ways no one else did. Talking about the worst of it comforted her, she says. “It was a sense of community."

Can you, should you, try to bring venting into the open? Jaimie Baxter Ayling started a Slack channel dubbed #vent at the Berkeley, Calif., nonprofit she was helping to lead at the start of the pandemic. Some employees were hesitant at first, but sharing about a late vendor or their kid’s latest tantrum helped them work together more efficiently and communicate more openly, she says.

Even when workers would post messages complaining about a decision made at a staff meeting or tension with another team, Ms. Baxter Ayling, a consultant who then served as chief operating officer and chief financial officer, found the platform helpful.

“The thing that’s being said is going to be said anyway," she says. “I would rather know about it and be able to address it than have it going on between two employees in a corner who are mad at the rest of the team."

Still, griping has far-reaching consequences, says Allison Gabriel, a management professor at the University of Arizona who researches emotions at work. In a recent paper, she and co-authors studied 112 managers over 10 workdays. Those exposed to employee venting felt more negative emotions—nervous, upset—and were more likely to treat other workers rudely that same day.

Bosses often absorb employees’ stress, Dr. Gabriel says, and peer ranting can distract co-workers, too. Will I be the next one sabotaged with a tough assignment from our boss, they might wonder. Even the venters can end up feeling worse because “you’re just reliving this all over again," she adds.

And then there are times when only a vent will do.

David Youngblood, now the CFO of an investment company in Knoxville, Tenn., still remembers the time a worker at a prior job called him to complain. As chief executive, he typically sprang into action upon hearing employee laments, gathering other team members to find a solution.

This worker began with a caveat.

“Please don’t do anything," Mr. Youngblood recalls him imploring. The guy just wanted to vent.

“Sometimes that’s the solution," Mr. Youngblood says he realized. Get the emotions out, “and you can move on with your life."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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