I once had an employee who grew up in the south and every time she came into my office to complain about one of her employees or co-workers, she always ended the conversation with those three words “bless her heart” or “bless his heart.” I have since heard loads of southern comedians joke about this phrase as a “get out of jail free card” that, when used, absolves the complainant of any responsibility regarding the damage that might occur from the horrendous crap that had just been said behind their target’s back.  Most of these conversations ended with me asking what I can do to help. Almost all of them ended with, “nothing, I’m just venting!”  She would thank me for listening and I would feel validated that I was a good boss who listened and supported his employees.

As I look at this now, several years removed, I have to say that this didn’t make me a good boss. In fact, I would argue that my willingness to allow venting without actual problem solving was doing far more harm than good...and here’s why:

1. Venting Destroys Team Cohesion

I have to agree with Patrick Lencioni that the “creation and maintenance of a cohesive team” is the primary responsibility of any leader, regardless if that leader is a business’s CEO, football coach or gym owner. Any culture that has a negative back room also invites unnecessary tension and paranoia amongst its people. When trust is broken, it shakes the organizational foundation and people start updating their resumes.

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2. Venting Can Validate Incorrect Opinions

The problem with individual perceptions is that they are normally created by looking through a victimized lens.

Jim is using all the copy room paper just to piss me off.

Marilyn is not cc’ing me on purpose!

We often assume that the people who are making our lives difficult are doing so with some kind of nebulous intent. I have found that this is seldom the case. People can be inconsiderate and unaware of how their actions might be affecting others; however, allowing someone to perpetuate the belief that these things happen because their co-workers are mean and nasty people is simply wrong. Letting someone hold onto these opinions without correcting them can be all the validation they need that they are right in their incorrect perceptions, and that never leads to good outcomes.

3. It Obliterates Productivity

Venting sessions never last five minutes. When the door closes and the claws come out, the “to do” list gets put on hold. I have talked to many supervisors over the years who have complained about spending way too much time on their staff’s feelings and too little time on growing their businesses. The bottom line is that too much venting hurts the bottom line.

 team discussing on blueprints

So how can you “close the vents?” It is philosophically very simple but profoundly difficult in practice. Here are a couple of ideas that you could do today to improve your work or team culture:

1. Establish and Explain the Ground Rules

Any time a supervisor changes his or her behavior, the employees have a right to be informed about the change before it happens.  Have an honest conversation with your staff and let them know that while the open door policy is still in effect, your new solutions-based policy is just beginning. Let them know that you haven’t done a good job with keeping the negativity under control and that you are wanting to change your practice for the good of everyone’s working conditions. Ask your staff for help. You might be surprised at their response.

2. Be Courageous

Closing the vents and being a solutions-based leader is definitely making a choice to take the high road in almost every conversation. It requires intellectual honesty and a willingness to converse with your employees at a much higher level. When you simply listen to an employee vent, you are doing little more than placating them; however, when you commit to working with them to find solutions to their stressors and negative relationships, you have to engage differently. More intimately. In order for your staff to be willing to see things from a different angle, they have to trust you, and that only comes from a boss who has the courage to care about them and their relationships.

3. Practice What You Preach

For me, this is the hardest expectation, simply because we as leaders are often guilty of seeking validation for our own perceptions and feelings. The problem is that employees will always emulate the behavior of their supervisors and if you're the one who is going door to door, complaining about a new corporate policy or initiative, you are basically giving them license to do the same. Regrettably, I have to admit that I am a long way from keeping this commitment perfectly. But in attempt to preserve our credibility with our people, leaders must demonstrate their willingness and commitment to the ground rules we create and the culture that we desire.

In the end, don’t confuse this message as one that allows those of you in positions of influence to stop listening to the grievances and concerns of your people. Quite the contrary! I would argue that this is a call to engage even more with your staff with the goal to not only listen, but problem-solve the issues that are giving them stress and creating reasons to hate their jobs. It isn’t easy, but it is certainly worth it.