Whiny Wednesdays: Letting Your Workers Vent—Strategically

Once upon a time, employees were expected to put up and shut up, to fulfill their jobs with unquestioning obedience. If they had a problem—with the job, with the boss, with clients, with co-workers—well, that was their problem. They needed to fix it on their own, with no fuss, and if they couldn’t do that, then they were expected to suffer in silence. Because that’s what they were paid to do, and because workers who brought up problems were troublemakers with bad attitudes. And the last thing the worker wanted to do was involve HR. That was the kiss of death for their gainful employment, usually.

This approach of “just do your job” might have worked with older generations brought up by authoritarian parents and used to command-and control leadership, but those days are past. Beginning with the Boomers, really, and growing more pronounced through Gen X, the Millennials, and Gen Z, parents took up a more child-centered approach to child-rearing with emphasis on meeting their children’s needs by asking what they wanted, acknowledging their feelings, and developing their autonomy and self-esteem.

We can make plenty of jokes about “participation” trophies and how, as in Lake Woebegone, every kid is now above average, but the fact is, whether we are ready or not, the younger generations of employees come into the workplace with certain expectations. These expectations include being taken seriously, experiencing some level of job satisfaction, having their work praised and acknowledged, and having a voice in what they do and how it is done. They never learned to suffer in silence. If they see something, they say something. If no one is listening, they say it louder.

I can imagine leaders out there nodding heads and thinking, “Yeah, what a bunch of complainers. That’s the problem.” And I already hear the “ugh millennials” comments coming out of our mouths –But it doesn’t have to be that way. I am going to propose that we make a small adjustment in your attitude, you can turn your problem makers into problem solvers. We learn a lot by listening to others. Knowledge is power, right? I call this approach strategic venting.

Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire

Let’s be honest. Sometimes things happen at work that can really test an employee’s temper, something they really need to get off their chest. How managers handle their employees’ anger or other strong feelings can make the difference between establishing a positive or toxic workplace.

As a manager, you can do one of three things: ignore the employee and the problem, try to tamp them down, or acknowledge what’s happening and let the worker have their say—let the worker vent. The first two may work in the short term, but almost always lead to bigger problems down the line as pressure builds towards an explosion. Letting the worker vent, however, is the first step toward solving the problem. Because if the worker needs to vent, there is a problem—that’s the smoke that points to the fire. And what is venting after all? It’s a way to release pressure, to blow off steam, to prevent the inevitable explosion that comes when nothing is done.

My dad managed a team of computer repair techs (when computers were as big as a desk). Their work was high pressure, with demanding clients who needed the job done yesterday and a front office pushing for more. He kept a stuffed animal in his office that squeaked when you strangled it. He laughed whenever he walked in and found a client’s name pinned to the toy. Sometimes the name was that of a team member or even his own! He didn’t get angry though. That’s how he handled the venting in his office. People didn’t yell, but because they were allowed to vent their frustrations in this silly way, they calmed down enough to handle the situation, either with my father’s help or on their own.

For years I worked in offices where venting was forbidden as “dwelling on the negative,” and bringing problems to the manager meant you couldn’t do your job. Those offices were horrible places to work, rife with tension and resentment that hurt our teamwork and eroded client service.

The first thing I did when I became a manager was to allow, even encourage, discussion and venting. I instituted Whiny Wednesdays, when employees could come to me and vent about anything personal or professional for five minutes. And yes, I set a timer. This helped employees de-stress and calm down, and once they felt heard, they shifted into problem-solving mode. Sometimes I just sat there and nodded until they came up with the perfect answer on their own. Other times I’d brainstorm with them to come to a solution or a plan to follow up. Either way, the worker was almost always able to work through their strong feelings and take a more practical stance. (For some employees, though, nothing was ever good enough, and the problem solving on my part involved how to manage them out.)

Venting With Purpose

Although venting can be an effective way to give employees a voice and pinpoint challenges in your business or office, we should distinguish venting from simply going off. Venting is strategic; going off self-indulgent. As the leader or manager, you’re using venting as a tool. For venting to be an effective leadership tool, it must:

  • Take place in a safe space. Let an employee vent in an office with a closed door, a soundproof conference room, or on a walk around the block. It’s important for employees to be able to vent without affecting other employees or being judged by them.
  • Be with a supervisor or project team members, not random coworkers. If too many workers are privy to the venting session, there’s the danger of spreading those strong feelings throughout the office. Venting with co-workers who have the same issues or work with the same client, on the other hand, may lead to a new perspective and solution as well as building a stronger, more collaborative workplace.
  • Occur within an established time frame. The supervisor should say “I have X minutes to discuss this, tell me what’s going on” and stick to that time frame. This helps move the employee into problem solving mode.
  • Be fixable. When employees express repeated frustration about something that can’t be remedied (a coworker they don’t like who won’t be let go, a rude client who brings in a lot of money, arbitrary rules that come down from corporate) then venting can quickly turn into whining and become a distraction rather than an opportunity. Intractable issues like these are one and done. Give the employee one session to vent, then indicate that that’s it for that issue, since nothing can be done about it. Sometimes “Deal with it” is a full sentence.
  • Be followed with an action plan. Not every frustrating situation has a simple solution, but one of the goals of the venting session should be to plan for the future. Is there a way to handle the client differently? Can we change the way they communicate with us? Can we switch the client point person? Can we set up a conference with the supervisor, the employee, and client to address the challenges together? (This is when venting and strategizing with coworkers on the same project can be beneficial.) If the issue is with a co-worker, can meeting with them help solve the problem? Once the issue is defined, be proactive about a solution.

How do you show your employees how to vent properly? Ask them. In an email or during a staff meeting tell them “If you have any frustrations with a client, co-worker, or the company itself, please come to me so we can work out a solution.” After helping the workers through the process a few times, they’ll no longer need your intervention. Learning to express their frustrations and find solutions independently will lead to fewer workplace issues in the long run.

That’s when allowing venting in the workplace pays off.