Venting about unfair situations at work may do more harm than good, according to a new University of Georgia study.
The research, co-authored by Jessica Rodell and published this month in the Academy of Management Journal, found that water cooler chitchat about a supervisor’s unfair treatment leaves workers feeling angrier and less hopeful. They also become less likely to forgive supervisors and move past the incident.
“We normally think of listening as a good thing—and it usually is. But simply listening can reinforce a negative view of an event and cause people to ruminate longer on a bad experience,” said Rodell, an associate professor of management in UGA’s Terry College of Business. “So instead of moving past it, the experience becomes something that people relive again and again.”
A better solution
A better solution is for listening co-workers to reframe the unfair incident, which can defuse emotional reactions, Rodell said. The researchers found that, by seeing the perceived unfairness in a new light, workers reported feeling calmer about the incident and more hopeful about the future.
“It’s not just about the person talking. It’s also about the person listening—and how they listen can make an impact,” Rodell said. “When the person listening reacts by saying, ‘Well maybe your boss was just having a bad day’ or ‘They’ve been under a lot of stress, I’m sure it wasn’t about you,’ workers can feel better about the incident. They’re able to move past the encounter.”
Importantly, whether or not the incident was unfair doesn’t matter as much as the workers’ perception that they were treated that way. Moving past an unfair incident is ultimately about managing an emotional response, Rodell said.
“The idea came when we thought about how people discuss unfairness at work. We realized that it never seems to make anyone feel better, even though it happens all the time,” said Rodell. “So we decided to look into it.”
First, the researchers surveyed bus drivers, asking them about unfair experiences, talking with co-workers and their attitudes about the job.
Results from the surveys revealed how drivers who talked about unfair incidents tended to be angrier about their jobs and their prospects for a better future.
The researchers also studied unfair incidents in a lab setting, where pairs of friends were invited to participate in a study with potential for a reward. The friends were split up, with one being subjected to tests with deliberately unfair conditions, such as the tester stopping the exercise early and marking right answers as incorrect. The other friend was trained to either help reframe their friend’s situation (or purposefully not reframe the situation).
Later, both friends were united to work on art projects together during which time, the reframer would casually inquire about their friend’s tests and how they felt about them. The friends then answered questions about the experience and were invited to help clean up after the art project as a favor to the testers.
Friends whose unfair experience had been reframed reported fewer negative feelings toward the testers and were much more likely to help clean the area.
“When people talk about emotional experiences, those emotions come to the forefront,” Rodell said. “What the results show is that this uncontrolled venting can really be harmful not only for our sense of the past, but it can dim our hope for the future as well.”
Co-authors of the research include Michael Baer of Arizona State University, Rashpal Dhensa-Kahlon of the University of Surrey, Ryan Outlaw of Indiana University, and Jason Colquitt, Kate Zipay and Rachell Burgess of the University of Georgia.