Griping about an unfair situation at work may do more harm than good, according to new research led by the University of Georgia and published in the Academy of Management Journal.
“We normally think of listening as a good thing—and it usually is. But simply listening can reinforce a negative view of an event and cause people to ruminate longer on a bad experience,” said Jessica Rodell, an associate professor of management at the university’s Terry College of Business, in a news release. “So instead of moving past it, the experience becomes something that people relive again and again.”
Researchers from Georgia, Arizona State University, the University of Surrey and Indiana University invited pairs of friends to participate in a study in a lab setting. The friends were separated, and one was subjected to intentionally unfair tests. Meanwhile, the other friend was trained to listen and reframe their friend’s plight, or to listen without expressing the situation differently.
When the friends were reunited, they worked on art projects. The listener would ask their friend how the tests went, and how they felt about them. The friends then answered questions and were asked to help clean up from the project as a favor to the testers.
Friends whose unfair experience had been reframed by a friend had fewer negative feelings toward the testers and were more likely to help clean the area, the research found.
The researchers also surveyed bus drivers, and learned that those who talked about unfair incidents at work were more likely to be angrier about their jobs and their prospects for a better future.
“When people talk about emotional experiences, those emotions come to the forefront,” Rodell said. “What the results show is that this uncontrolled venting can really be harmful not only for our sense of the past, but it can dim our hope for the future as well.”
Reframing unfair incidents can help defuse emotional reactions, Rodell said.
“It’s not just about the person talking. It’s also about the person listening—and how they listen can make an impact,” she said. “When the person listening reacts by saying, ‘Well maybe your boss was just having a bad day’ or ‘They’ve been under a lot of stress, I’m sure it wasn’t about you,’ workers can feel better about the incident. They’re able to move past the encounter.”