Workplace venting makes it harder to bounce back from bad experiences

By Alex Fradera

When you experience frustrations at work – spats with colleagues, or last-minute demands – it’s natural to want to voice your feelings. And surely it’s healthier. After all, better out than in! Not according to new evidence in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology that shows complaining about negative events actually cements their impact. The researchers Evangelia Demeroutia and Russell Cropanzano recommend trying instead to meet the slings and arrows of everyday indignity with all the “sportsmanship” you can muster.

Demeroutia and Cropanzano, at Eindhoven University of Technology and the University of Colorado at Boulder, asked 112 employed people – from areas like finance, industry and healthcare – to complete diaries for three days in a row. At the end of each day, participants reported how much they had engaged in complaining during that day, how much they’d been focused on what was wrong with the situations they’d been in, and finally, how much they’d tended to make mountains out of molehills. Low scores across these items meant the participant had practiced “good sportsmanship”.

The researchers also asked participants to record in their dairies a single negative event they’d experienced during each day, and to rate its severity. Additionally, participants rated how much they felt a variety of moods during the day, like energetic or inspired, and their engagement with work through items like “Today, I felt proud of the work I did.”

When sportsmanship was low, worse negative events took a greater toll on participants – they not only reported lower momentary mood and less satisfaction and pride with the work they’d been doing that same day, but they also tended to experience lower mood the next morning, measured in a separate diary entry, and lower pride in next-day accomplishments.

But when sportsmanship was high – meaning that participants hadn’t complained, escalated minor issues, or stewed over things too much – bad events, even if rated as severe, didn’t impact mood or work engagement, that day or the next. Demeroutia and Cropanzano think there may be two reasons for this. Firstly, revisiting the event gives it a second wind, further reinforcing the association between it and the normally transient negative emotions that were initially provoked, turning a bad experience into That Bad Experience. Secondly, if complaints are poorly expressed or directed at the wrong person, they can exacerbate the situation, and that’s all too possible when you are still caught up in a drama.

The researchers stress that they are not asking people to refrain from talking about bad things. When a problem keeps manifesting in an organisation or relationship you need to resolve it, and that begins by putting it into words. But purposeless complaining can just as easily be a way to avoid moving on, the out-loud version of mental rumination keeping us in its undertow. Demeroutia and Cropanzano point to more constructive methods like expressive writing, which have an evidence base showing success in making sense of negative experience. This form of reflection, or attentive conversation focused on straightening out a knotty problem, are vastly preferred to unconstructive venting.

The buffering role of sportsmanship on the effects of daily negative events

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Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

28 thoughts on “Workplace venting makes it harder to bounce back from bad experiences”

  1. Correlation does not mean causation. It could be that those more prone to negative outbursts are also more affected by problems at work , causing the longer-term lowered mood and poorer coping behaviour found in this research.

    1. I think it’s just as likely that the person complaining does it to feel better but it has a negative effect on everyone around them. I used to work with someone who did this and eventually found that his toxic moaning really got me down. I left – he’s still there!

  2. What Graham Smith said. The way to test it would be to get people to purposefully refrain from venting or to vent more and then see if there was any effect on the general mood. I bet that although venting might make you more miserable, being miserable makes you both more sensitive to small slights AND make you vent more.

  3. This study is flawed at multiple levels – Only 3 days of data ??? Also correlation does not imply causation. It could just be that optimistic people who tend to be do not complain or vent much.

    1. I think they were quite careful about their choice of data collection points:

      “In order to maximize participation we followed the advice of Stadler, Robbins, Laurenceau, and Bolger (2013), keeping the number of days in our diary at a minimum… this smaller number of days necessitated that we increase the size of our overall sample in order to maintain statistical power (Bolger & Laurenceau, 2013).”

      Out of interest, what would you have preferred and why?

  4. I work in groups in NhS settings. Venting has a place but alongside brainstorming possible solutions and sharing positive ideas. Not feeling or being heard ( no one likes a constant ‘moaner’) creates this unhelpful situation. Lack of motivation and all the usual suspects then set in. Solution focusing seems to be an antidote- where a solution can not be found then work on acceptance is necessary. Thought provoking article thanks

  5. Several people have alluded to the third/hidden variable problem, which can arise in a variety of scientific designs outside of the pure random controlled trial. (This is how I’m taking the thrust of all the ‘correlation /= causation’ comments, as presumably no-one is suggesting that this could simply be a case of reverse causation: that mood on a Tuesday is affecting sportsmanship on the Monday before).

    Firstly, and perhaps this can be clearer in the text, the purpose of using a diary study (or most forms of longitudinal research) rather than a one-off survey, is that it is a within-subjects design, allowing a repeated-measures analysis. To whit, the present research question is:

    does this person’s venting/sportsmanship on this day influence their mood + engagement, compared to that same person on another day, when they used a different amount of venting?

    It’s a little more complicated than that in this instance, but the principle remains: within-subjects, not between. This is why the text refers to ‘when sportsmanship was high’ rather than ‘for participants with high levels of sportsmanship’; again, it could be more explicit.

    As a result, whether or not there are optimistic people who don’t vent much isn’t an obvious alternative explanation for the finding. Nor would a proneness to outbursts causing long term low mood explain the finding. These durable third variables can explain differences between people well, but aren’t good candidates for explaining differences within people.

    Now, there is another related concern – common method bias – that the authors do discuss in their limitations section. . This refers to the fact that multiple variables are being obtained by the same means, self-report by the individual, which can also produce risks of confounds. For example, that when a person sees themselves as being more sportsmanlike, they are also glossing the negative situation in a different way somehow (while still rating it as negative) After discussing this and the steps taken to address it, the authors were satisfied that the risk of this driving the results was limited, and so was I, so I didn’t pad out our post by discussing it. (If you are interested, the typical Limitations section has a greater word count than the typical Digest post.)

    We will never report on a flawless study because no-one has ever conducted one; and when a study is fatally compromised, I’m all too happy to say so. But this seems like a pretty good one to me; the predictions are grounded in established scientific knowledge, the methodology is solid and takes lessons from previous work in the field, the claims aren’t excessive based on the findings, and the interpretation is measured.

    It’s exactly the kind of reasonably cost/effort-effective observational work you’d want to see before, for example, asking people to modify their behaviour and natural affective tendencies in the name of science. This study has sharpened our suspicion that there may be something there, that we may be less wrong in thinking this may be so. Now we might want to see if we can sharpen it further, perhaps by trying something along the lines suggested by MDH. (That said, as a fun thought-experiment-experiment, you could try and think through what critical flaws people might be able to come up with in the comments to *that* study…)

  6. I recall something similar looking at expressions of frustration within intimate relationships some years ago – sample period was at least two weeks and may have been six. One of the things I still remember was that it is important to see venting as a social act, intended to have effect on others, and that the effect it has depends on both actor and actee(?) intentions, prior actions and dispositions.

    In particular, cultural expectations of what is and is not “productive” or “acceptable” (they may or may not be the same thing) play a big part. I’m interested because I’ve watched the gradual change in my sister over thirty years of partnership with a lovely, verbally explosive, gentle Greek. She has become more Greek, he has become less so. This adaptation happens in workplaces too, but less obviously.

    It seems to me we forget the other social animals around the active one – it simply isn’t behaviour in a vacuum.

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