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.
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