Setbacks happen, and when they do, they affect the morale of the whole team. As a manager, you naturally want to put the best face on the situation to keep employees engaged and optimistic. At the same time, you know that if you’re not open and transparent about the setback, you’ll lose credibility with the team, and they may even come to see you as untrustworthy. Should you give employees the time and space to vent their frustrations?

The short answer, according to researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology in Amsterdam and the University of Colorado at Boulder, is no. Their work suggests that to get morale and engagement back on track after the team receives bad news, you should try not to encourage venting, because it can actually make things worse. Instead, publicly praise the attitude and stamina of the employees who manage to stay positive and focused despite the setback.

The research

Here’s how they came to that conclusion. The researchers asked 112 employed people across multiple industries to keep daily work diaries. At the end of each day, participants reported how much they had engaged in complaining during that day. They also logged how much they’d been focused on what was wrong with the situations they’d been in. The results showed a spectrum from low-venting (or complaining) to high-venting employees.

The study authors then asked participants to write in those diaries a single negative event they’d experienced during each day. The participants also had to rate severity of the event, their moods, and their engagement with the work they were doing.

Worse negative events took a much greater toll on high-venting participants. They reported lower moods during that day—and, importantly, less satisfaction and pride in the work they did on subsequent days. On the other hand, the employees who didn’t vent as much, even when they rated a negative event as “severe,” did not have their mood or work engagement negatively impacted that day or on the following days.

Venting itself led to lower engagement in the work. But why does this happen? The researchers found two reasons:

  1. Venting about a setback gives the event a second wind, reinforcing the negative emotions which would otherwise have been transient.
  2. When venting took the form of complaints that were either poorly expressed or directed at the wrong person, the situation, whatever it was, became exacerbated. In other words, venting created drama.

How does it work in practice?

Suppose George is a customer service manager at a B2B distributor. The company has just lost one of its biggest accounts, and his team is now under a lot of pressure. Some of his employees are angry. They feel the customer service team is unfairly taking the blame. Others are openly complaining about upper management decisions. George understands why these employees feel upset and stressed out. Not only that, he’s worried that if he doesn’t do something to address the effect the bad news is having on morale, he’ll start losing good people. His first instinct is to send an email to the whole team acknowledging the setback and inviting them to come and talk to him about it if they want to.

George’s first instinct is only half right. According to the research, he should definitely acknowledge the setback, but then praise those employees who are staying positive and focused. He could say: “It’s no secret that the loss of this account is tough news for all of us to take. But we’ve got to stay focused on learning from it and moving past it. Danielle is already doing a fantastic job staying focused on the future. Just this morning I got an email from one of our customers complimenting her for providing world-class support.”

George doesn’t complain, or invite employees to complain. Nor does he forbid venting outright, which could backfire. In the midst of the setback, he simply gives them an example of behavior to aspire to. In doing so, he keeps his team out of emotional quicksand that venting creates. Plus, he prevents any drama that might come from griping that gets out of hand.

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