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Let’s Talk About Lending an Ear: How Venting in the Workplace Can Go Wrong

Let’s Talk About Lending an Ear: How Venting in the Workplace Can Go Wrong

March 19, 2021 | By Michael Adkison

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Researcher: Christopher C. Rosen


Whether it’s that one coworker in the office, or a Friday afternoon happy hour, most everybody in the workforce finds they need to vent, the process describing negative emotions to others based on your circumstances. Conventional wisdom suggests that there’s a feeling of catharsis when we vent to our peers: it feels great to let that emotional baggage go. But, as a recent article from Personnel Psychology notes, just who you vent to can make all the difference: studies have analyzed the benefits to the ventor but what about the ventee?

Researchers Christopher C. Rosen, Allison S. Gabriel, Hun Whee Lee, Joel Koopman, and Russell E. Johnson examine the effects of venting to an office leader in their article “When Lending an Ear Turns Into Mismanagement: An Episodic Examination of Leader Mistreatment in Response to Receipt of Venting at Work.” As they note, previous studies have emphasized the cathartic value that venting provides, but what is unclear is “how the leaders who receive such venting process this event.” As such, the researchers analyzed how leaders react to being on the receiving end of venting from other members of the organization, and their results show that venting to leaders can have detrimental results—even that very day.

Building Up Emotions

“The concept of venting is based on the work of Freud,” the researchers note, “who suggested that repressed emotion builds up and causes individuals to experience psychological symptoms (e.g., hysteria and phobias) that need to be released in some form.” Since then, numerous studies on venting have come out, some of which describe the effects of venting in the workplace. But, the researchers say, those studies “have provided contradictory findings.” For example, venting can provide that emotional catharsis, sure, but it also causes “employees to not only relive their negative experiences, but to also relive the feelings associated with the experience (e.g., anger) which ‘tend to be fresh, as poignant and as articulable as they were at the original occasion.’”

These contradictory findings, paired with the fact that “the vast majority of research on venting has focused on the individual who is expressing negative emotion (i.e., the ventor), to the exclusion of research focused on the recipient of the venting at work (i.e., the ventee), have led to a clear gap in prior research on workplace venting.” Venting with your peers can be like an echo chamber—co-workers can nod along, with the occasional interjection of “Oh, I know,” or “Can you believe it?” But it’s a different ball game when you vent to your boss. As the researchers note, venting to organizational leaders can stress those leaders out “because it (a) distracts them from their on-going work goals; (b) identifies issues that are bothering their employees, which leaders may feel obligated to address; and/or (c) triggers feelings of distress over hearing about how their colleagues are suffering, which is a social cue that leaders are likely attuned to given the relational nature of their jobs.”

“The leader role is inherently relational,” the researchers write. But leaders are sort of like the nucleus of the organization—when something goes wrong for the leader, the whole office can suffer.

If the Boss Ain’t Happy, Nobody’s Happy

The researchers’ study works in a twofold pattern—venting to office leaders can be problematic, and that venting can then lead to negativity around the workplace, which can manifest itself in lashing out or short-temperedness. More explicitly put, “leaders who are exposed to daily venting from other organizational members will have a negative emotional reaction, which in turn leads to maladaptive interpersonal behavior at work.” Venting to bosses, after all, distances them from their own responsibilities. And when leaders are distracted from their personal goals, tasks, and requirements, it can bring negativity (e.g., frustration, anxiety) to the work environment. The researchers note that negative emotions and behaviors serve as a sort of coping mechanism, a way to blow off steam from a stressful environment.

“Interestingly,” they write, “research across domains (e.g., decision sciences, management, marketing, public health, psychology) identifies need for cognition as a stable individual difference that is particularly important for understanding how individuals respond to environmental stimuli and events.” Need for cognition boils down to the idea that people process information in different ways; some individuals with a higher need for cognition may meditate or contemplate on problem-solving methods, while those with lower needs for cognition may respond based more so on their emotions. “Indeed, research has established that individuals with higher levels of need for cognition exhibit more deliberative cognitive processing, focusing more attention on the merits and content of information being conveyed, whereas those lower in need for cognition exhibit more automatic information processing, focusing on peripheral information and cues.”

In other words, if your boss has a higher need for cognition, venting to them may not be such a problem because they will take the time to sit down and weigh the seriousness of the situation and potential solutions. If your supervisors have a lower need for cognition, the act of venting may be more significant, as they are prone “to be influenced by surface-level cues (e.g., facial, vocal, and postural expressions that convey negative emotion) which initiate automatic processes that elicit negative emotion during interpersonal interactions.” People process new information very differently from one another, and “leaders higher in need for cognition may construe the receipt of venting as a less mentally and emotionally draining experience relative to those who are low in need for cognition.” In other words, knowing how your supervisors process information can make all the difference before you vent to them.

Word Around the Office

To investigate venting in the office, the researchers offered hundreds of daily surveys to a number of workers, with a final sample of 790 observations from 112 participants. These surveys asked questions regarding the receipt of venting, need for cognition, and negative emotions within the work environment. Based on the results and responses, the researchers found that much of their hypotheses was supported. “Daily receipt of venting positively associated with an increase in negative emotion later that day.” That negativity, in turn, led to “interpersonal mistreatment” in the office. Those negative emotions were therefore more likely to manifest for individuals with a lower need for cognition.

Finally, the researchers predicted that “need for cognition would moderate the indirect effect of daily receipt of venting on interpersonal mistreatment via negative emotion.” In short, someone with a higher need for cognition, who will focus on problem-solving when they are vented to, is less likely to be stressed out or lash out at their employees. Once the researchers had tested and ensured that negativity significantly related to that interpersonal mistreatment, they found that “the effect of daily receipt of venting on interpersonal mistreatment via negative emotion was significant and positive for individuals with lower need for cognition, but not higher.” In other words, while a lower need for cognition may hurt office leaders from managing those negative emotions, a higher need for cognition does not necessarily help office leaders from doing the same.

What This Means for You

The results from this study highlight “that negative emotion… accounted for the indirect relationship of receipt of venting with interpersonal mistreatment within the same workday.” Plus, the researchers demonstrated the relationship between cognitive processing and these negative emotions. The researchers draw three conclusions from the research:

  1. Listening to others vent daily may come at a significant cost to leaders
  2. Venting-related negative emotion can result in collateral damage in the form of incivility or interpersonal mistreatment
  3. Depth of information processing (i.e., need for cognition) shields leaders from the deleterious effects associated with being the recipient of venting

“Although leaders may be able to address concerns that are raised to them by others… the negative emotion experienced from receipt of venting may undermine their ability to be effective in their leadership role.” While research prior to this study has shown that venting in the workplace can be beneficial, this investigation demonstrates that that may not be the best policy—and “recommendations for employees to uniformly vent frustrations to leaders as a means of improving their work situation may be ill-advised.”

“Leaders spend a large part of their workdays interacting with and listening to other members of the organization. Although this is a critical function of their leadership role, [the researchers’] results suggest that this crucial activity may come at a cost for leaders and their workgroup.” As such, the researchers suggest that leaders, when they’re on the receiving end of venting, “should focus their attention on the message that is being conveyed by the person who is doing the venting and engage in controlled, effortful processing aimed at understanding the frustrations and concerns being expressed to them.” The results show that receiving an emotional rant in the morning could have detrimental results by the afternoon. As such, it’s essential to know when to lend an ear in the workplace and how to do it.

Post Researcher:

Matt WallerChristopher C. Rosen is a professor and the John H. Tyson Chair in Business Management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He received a B.A. in Psychology and Economics from Washington and Lee University, his M.A. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management from Appalachian State University, and his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Akron. His research covers a broad range of topics, including employee well-being, self-regulation, and organizational politics. He currently serves as an associate editor for Journal of Management and is chair of the Human Resources Division of the Academy of Management

Post Author:

Matt WallerMichael Adkison is a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas's School of Journalism's MA Program. As well as writing for Walton Insights, he reported and produced for UATV, and he worked as a manager and social media assistant for University of Arkansas Recreation. He currently serves as a multimedia journalist and reporter at KRCG in Jefferson City, Missouri.