Recently a friend told me about a frustration she had with her boss. He was a “fixer.” If she stopped by his office for a quick chat and brought up any challenges she was having, he would jump to giving her an answer to resolve it. “I’m not looking for him to fix the problem. Sometimes I’m just keeping him in the loop and frankly, sometimes I’m just looking to vent.”

We all know that venting can be therapeutic at times. Something or someone annoys you and you just need to let off steam about it. Talking about it is sometimes all you need to let it go and move on. So how do you make room for your employees to vent without you either jumping to fix things, getting frustrated yourself, or getting caught in a downward spiral of whining and complaining?

  • Know the difference – As I see it, venting is a release of emotions and thoughts that helps you to unburden and regain balance. A complaint on the other hand is often a (sometimes well-hidden) request for help and guidance. When your employee complains about how a project is going or how difficult it is to get action on an important issue, they are likely hitting a point where the problem has grown beyond their ability to address it. They may be feeling powerless or undermined. Knowing whether you are dealing with a complaint or venting is important.
  • Ask questions – Rather than jumping to fix the problem and tell your employee what to do, ask a few questions to understand what is really going on. You can even ask outright: “Do you want my help with what you are describing or do you just need to vent?” If he needs your help, then you have an opportunity to help him process the situation and come up with solutions himself by asking questions such as, “What do you see as the main obstacles in this situation?”, “Taking a step back, what is the common objective here?”, and “How can you share your concerns with the other folks involved?”
  • Support healthy venting – I worked for a manager who was quite adept at using venting as a team skill. At the beginning of every team meeting, we had a small segment of the meeting devoted to venting. We could get off of our chests any of the frustrations and irritations we had in a safe and confidential environment with our peers, who could often relate very well to what we were describing. Recently we did an onsite with a team of managers who rarely have the chance to be together in person. There was a lot of venting (and complaining) going on and the group let us know that they really needed time to vent, that it was actually quite helpful to them as a team. The key is helping your employees learn how to use venting productively and then move forward with focus and openness. As a leader you have to opportunity to help your employees become skilled at managing their emotions and reactions so that over time they can be less triggered by situations and people.

We all need a good vent every now and then. Creating space for your team members to vent and helping them to manage the need to vent so that they don’t get stuck in negativity is important. And recognizing when there is a call for help in the form of complaint allows you to get to the heart of the issue and reach a solution together. When handled correctly, venting can be a healthy and productive part of creating an effective team environment.

How do you handle venting in the workplace?
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