There’s nothing more cathartic than a proper bitch session when your boss is being unreasonable, but the coworker you confide in has the power to hurt your career — and not in the way you’d think.
According to a recent study in the Academy of Management Journal, slamming your boss to a colleague, particularly a “passive listener,” can make you angrier, more pessimistic, and a worse employee.
“When people are upset, their natural inclination is to vent to someone who validates their feelings by saying things like, ‘Wow, you were really wronged,'” says study author Michael Baer, a professor at Arizona State University. “But that type of feedback isn’t best if you want to get over a negative situation.”
In the two-part study, Baer and his team asked 170 bus drivers how fairly they’re treated by their supervisors, how they express frustration to coworkers, and the type of feedback they receive from their vent sessions.
They found that drivers who vented to passive listeners — those who said things like, “You’re totally right” and “Yeah, you got screwed” — felt angrier and more unforgiving of their bosses, less optimistic that the situation would improve, and started slacking on the job.
Their supervisors noticed. When researchers followed up with the bosses after a period of time, the above employees almost uniformly received poor reviews. “These employees were less willing to go the extra mile at work,” says Baer. “Their lack of effort wasn’t conscious, but because they were angry, they were less motivated to impress their bosses.”
Things looked a lot different for the drivers who vented to colleagues who “reframed” their problems by saying things like, “Maybe there was a reason for that,” “Things aren’t so bad,” or “What was your part in it?”
“They did not get angrier, feel less hopeful or unforgiving, and their job performance didn’t suffer [after the conversation],” says Baer.
Similar results were proved in the lab — researchers assigned a group of students an anagram project to complete independently for five minutes, then asked the proctor to annoy the subjects by announcing that time was up after only three minutes. The proctor then said, “The way I grade these is… well, never mind. You don’t need to know. It’s not like undergraduates get or care about these things anyway” and incorrectly graded the tests, giving only partial credit for people’s work.
Once subjects were sufficiently pissed off, they were paired with people with either reframing or passive listening skills. While the former group still felt angry, they were more hopeful and forgiving; the latter seethed, even refusing the proctor’s request to help clean the classroom before they left.
It’s absolutely true that venting feels good— sharing a painful experience can minimize sadness and anger, help sort through complicated feelings, and in cases where people share your pain (like colleagues who suffer under the same boss) complaining serves as a “social glue.”
However, both parties are responsible for any negative outcomes and should try for a positive one. If a coworker is upset, do your best to have their back and ask objective questions that help diffuse their anger. “It can be tough to strike the right balance between reframing and supporting the person,” says Baer. But we still need to try.
If you’re the one complaining, ask yourself, “Do I want to stay mad or move on?” Research published in the Journal of Social Psychology found that complaining, but with the hope of problem-solving, can actually make people happier. “It’s also important to confide in the right person,” says Baer. “Or have a mix of people to talk to — one for venting and another who’s good at helping you see things differently.”