Why Venting Is A Trust Buster

All About BusinessI recently worked with a leadership team who had a history of triangulation and venting. They decided that in order to accomplish their organization’s objectives, they needed to have greater trust and transparency among them.

This type of venting takes place on teams all the time. Although we often don’t mean it to be harmful, this back-end venting can turn out to be toxic. When we seek satisfaction with someone who can’t solve the problem, rather than address the issues with someone who can, we passively perpetuate dissatisfaction with the person or situation.

This team decided to make a sacred commitment to consciously avoid engaging in triangulation with each other. Part of this sacred commitment was to take transparent actions that involved the people directly involved when “yucky moments” (their term) took place. Instead of venting to team member B about team member A, they determined to have the conversation directly with team member A instead.

This is not a novel intention within leadership teams. Although most leaders can state this idea, my experience is that few practice it. As the team shared why they hadn’t been doing this already, I was struck by how powerfully attractive venting is.

This team, for example, recognized that they had used venting as a mechanism for releasing the pressure of their tensions and emotions around these “yucky moments,” all the while avoiding the discomfort of a difficult conversation. Furthermore, since we invariably vent to people that agree with us, we reinforce the powerful sensation of being right (and that the person being vented about is wrong).

One of the member of the team realized that when people came to his office to vent, it was flattering for his ego to be the “confidante.” Not to mention the look-a-like of connection, because you and I are aligned about the faults of the other person.

Whether we are the one venting or the one listening, at Learning as Leadership, we call this “making bad.” In that moment, we are characterizing the other person as wholly negative, and disempowering their full potential as a person and leader.

Unfortunately, these delightful feelings (we call them ‘ego benefits’) come with costs: assumptions go unchallenged, conclusions about the other person are reinforced, and Us vs. Them dynamics are created. Once camps are formed, it becomes impossible to build trust.

In my experience, if a team isn’t ready to let go of these ego benefits, they won’t change the dysfunctions they cause.

This leadership team was faced with the dilemma of not wanting to vent, but also not wanting people to not express their concerns. That’s how they came up with a rule for responsible venting. It looks like this:

You have a problem with team member A, and you go to team member B and say, “Look. I need to clear my head. I need to vent. I need to get this out before I go talk to team member A.”

The agreement is that team member B may receive the communication, but only if you (the speaker) have a commitment to talk to team member A afterward. Team member B’s side might go something like this:

“OK. If you need to clear your mind, I will listen. But I also need to be clear with you that I’m going to support you to talk to team member A.”

Once you’ve said your piece, team member B’s practice can also involve helping you to rebalance your perspective about team member A. It is never as one sided as we think it is in our moment of outrage.

Then you need to actually go have the conversation. If you don’t follow through on this step, falling back into unproductive triangulation is just a matter of time.

We call this type of communication “making good.” It’s not about making ourselves or others “feel” good. Making good often requires going through our own comfort zone and letting go of the look-a-like of gratification and connection. Responsible venting and making good are keys to create trust and safety within a team.

What has been the impact on your team of back-end venting? How did you stop it? We would love to hear your comments.

  1. Jeff says:

    Wow — this really hit the mark. That is in part because I was in a meeting yesterday were this dynamic was named (so I guess this is one of the examples of syncronicity, too!) Upon reflection — which this post will help me deepen — part of the dynamic reflects ego issues (mine!) and structural issues (lack of clarity about who is accountable for certain decisions, which amplified this venting effect as people went via back channels to communicate messages and try to get things done.) Appreciate the insight.

    1. Carole Levy says:

      Thanks Jeff! I like that you mention the structural issues. Regular one on one or regular meetings to communicate info or clear hierarchy helps preventing venting. But they don’t replace the commitment of “making good” that is necessary, as you know!

  2. Rich German says:

    Not sure I agree that venting is a trust buster. If a leadership team is well put together and words are chosen carefully, then I think that venting can save time (although not always feelings). It takes a lot of trust to be able to vent.

    1. Carole Levy says:

      Hi Rich, I’m wondering if we are talking about the same “venting” (Venting for me = A is talking to B about C behind C’s back and A is judging C without talking to C). If we are talking about the same things, I sincerely would like to understand more your point of view. I agree that there is a responsible way to vent: we release our thoughts and emotions but we do something constructive with them. At the end of “responsible venting”, we feel more a team. We don’t feel we are part of a “camp”.

  3. Deb Kotlarz says:

    It’s been my experience that when venting occurs behind closed doors or behind another’s back, their credibility of a working partner is lost. It is hard for others (who have been a part of the venting) to value that worker as a positive member of the team and therefore avoid situations to work with that person.

  4. Dwight Chruma says:

    Your’re right, venting does inflate egos. I have worked with many people who routinely vent about others (behind their back of course), and with the comments they make, I can tell that they are just trying to make themselves feel better about the work they are doing.

    1. Carole Levy says:

      Thanks for your comment. You are very clear!

  5. Eduardo Richa says:

    The responsible venting rule discussed seems pretty good. Vent to another before going to the person you have a problem with can be very beneficial. I see this as an opportunity to clear your thoughts, and maybe decide that venting is not necessary at all.

  6. Tom Lackman says:

    the us vs. them dynamic is something I experienced at my last job. Venting about others inablility to do their job well was commonplace and I sometimes found myself caught between two sides. I didn’t like what I head, even though I sometimes agreed. I usually kept it to myself, but occaisionally when to the big cheese to fill him in on. I actually found myself avoiding certian co-workers at times.

    1. Carole Levy says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience; we all have been part of venting experiences and not necessarily feeling good about ourself afterwards.

  7. Shannon Aldrich says:

    I agree. Making good with the other person is an important step, otherwise the issue will not be solved. We vent to try and change something that we don’t like. If we only vent, we are leaving it up to the other person to change and most likely they won’t. Vent away, but have a plan to help.

    1. Carole Levy says:

      I like your last sentence/mentra: “Vent away, but have a plan to help”!!

  8. Cody Williams says:

    There have been times when I wanted to vent – right in front of everyone. I would love to call out some ideas that are shared because I think they are horrible. Instead, I bite my lip, hold my tongue, and just try to offer advice. Usually I just leave a meeting thinking how stupid others on the leadership team are.

    1. Carole Levy says:

      Hi Cody! Sometimes it’s not easy to manage our emotions and judgements! My experience is that if I leave a meeting thinking how stupid people are, it left me with resentment and I’m not happy. If I vent with others about how stupid the previous people are, I just perpetuate an us versus them without resolving anything…I’m still resentful and unhappy. Tough job to learn to collaborate with others!

  9. Jennifer Berman says:

    I vent. Not as much as I used to. I also found myself venting to the same people, often about the same people. And yes, we had the same outlook and seemed to always be in agreement. It was almost a daily ritual, but after awhile I started to see and feel a negative effect on how I saw others and how my venting colleagues saw others.

    1. Carole Levy says:

      Thanks Jennifer for offering your experience. It speaks to me.

  10. Michelle O'Connell says:

    I find it difficult to vent openly. Words must be chosen very carefully and there must be a certain amount of trust involved, and if you are the one venting, you need to know ahead of time how the other person will handle the critisism. It could easily get ugly a create a stressful workplace.

    1. Carole Levy says:

      Hi Michelle, in my experience, I don’t go to the person I have an issue with, to vent directly with him or her. I can go find a third person to ask for support. But i have to be clear that I’m asking for support to expand my view on the other one, or to have a conversation with the other one, not to be right. I agree, it’s not easy to have this level of communication.

  11. Sherman Unkefer says:

    I don’t agree with avoiding trianglulation. I think that would only build up resentment towards each others abilities as a part of the team. There needs to be some venting (for ego purposes) because I think it is impossible for everyone to always feel like an equal withing a leadership team.

  12. Kathy Nelson says:

    My ego has been stroked at times by venting. But, I would also like to think that I only vented because I genuinely felt I had a legitimate reason. I also offered my advice to the situation whenever I vented and therefore I felt I was a positive part of it rather than just offering criticism.

  13. Ian Palast says:

    I lost a very good worker once from others venting about her. She did outstanding work, however she did not have the same vision or work habbits as the others. She got tired of the comments behind her back, because they would eventually get back to her, and she went elsewhere. I still have not been able to find a replacement that works at the level she did.

    1. Carole Levy says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ian. Very often, behind “venting”, there is a clash between different styles and misunderstanding. We usually don’t know how to address this clash. So it’s easier to judge behind the back. It’s sad that your person had to leave but it can be useful a useful experience to think about the future of your team.

  14. Gaurav Kumar says:

    I have had times where I wanted to vent to the boss about what is going on with other team members, but I have had my reservations because the boss has openly praised those members. I felt that he liked what they were doing and that if I spoke up, he would look at me like I wasn’t a team player. I don’t want to offend anyone, but at the same time I don’t want anyone speaking ill of me!

    1. Carole Levy says:

      Hi Gaurav, you are raising an important point: how do I talk about my concerns in a constructive way. I often saw people being stuck in the “box” you described: I don’t want to appear not being a team player but I also want to be honest and put my concern on the table. That’s sometimes when “responsible venting” can help: check first your perceptions with another person than your boss, who can help you clarify your thoughts and your needs, and perhaps find a constructive angle to address your concern.

  15. Bill Groen says:

    The ego is just part of most leadersmind set. Part of the reason they aspired to be a leader is because their ego wouldn’t allow them to be any less in the workplace. No matter how a situation unfolds, there needs to be a way to keep the ego inflated and one of those ways if to vent about others. I feel it’s a part of the job, but if it becomes a problem, the dynamic of the team must change.

  16. Carol Hinson says:

    I see value in the model you write about. Going to another team member to vent first can be a positive way to handle this. But, the goal of the venting must be so that you have your thoughts clear before making your official vent. The other team member can help you see the situation from another angle and that can help alleviate some of the stress beforehand.

    1. Carole Levy says:

      Hi Carol! Yeap, you got it. Very clear summary.

  17. Morgan says:

    There are only 4 people on my leadership team and we have worked together for nearly 10 years. No longer do we have a problem venting in front of each other. I find that if sometimes saves time, but we all know that there is nothing personal about it and we respect the contributions of each other. Of course, I can’t say it was like this in the beginning.

  18. Jon Davis says:

    Carole, this is a fantastic post and sure is one of the most difficult things to cure in office politics. We instituted a 24 hr rule to handle issues directly with the person. This way it doesn’t fester. However, I still struggle with how to respond when I am being vented too. It is so easy to fall into the trap of participating in the venting process and being the the confidant. However, that is not making someone good as you mentioned. Thanks for the reminder on how important it is to stay committed to these ideas.

    1. Carole Levy says:

      Thanks for your comment Jon. Right, it’s hard to resist to the high of being the confident. Perhaps a question to ask in these moments, is: “how can i help you in this conversation?”. It can help to nicely recenter the conversation. Just a tip!

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