Venting vs. Gossiping in a Psychologically Safe Workplace

    “Can I just vent for a moment?” 

    We have all participated in this conversation in some form in our professional lives.

    The words may be slightly different, but the transaction is the same. 

    Something or someone has upset you and you need to let off some steam. You know it’s better out than in as the more secrets we harbor, the sicker we get. The sicker we get the more cognitive and emotional strain we feel. Silence kills culture. We need to vent. We need to speak up. 


    Venting vs. Gossip: Understanding the Difference

    Part of having a psychologically safe environment is the freedom to express your thoughts, opinions, and issues without fear of censure and repercussions.  That also requires work on your part. 

    It is imperative that you do not turn venting into office gossip or just complaining.

    For context. 

    Venting is part of psychological safety. One human getting off their chest is something important to another human that is factual in some form. The intentions are good. 

    Office gossip will tear the team apart. It’s the anti-psychological safety. It’s talking about something that is an assumption that is judgmental and ladened with prejudice. More than likely comes from a mean-hearted place. 

    As a rule of thumb, if you can’t say what you are about to say about someone to their face, don’t say it behind their back.
    So how do you do it? 

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    Creating a Culture that Discourages Gossip

    First, there must be a collective agreement in your culture that there is a huge difference between venting and gossiping. For example, in DX, we have stated that gossip is not allowed. As a leader, if I find out someone is gossiping about another person, it is a written warning. 

    I had to call this out not long ago. I had a team member complain to me about another team member. I explained this is not part of our culture. I got that team member to say to the other person in a meeting that I mediated, to say what they said to me to them. 

    Healthy venting leads to productive conversations, feedback, solutions, and strengthening of relationships. 
    Gossip has malicious intent, incites speculation, is passive-aggressive, and tears down relationships.

    As strong, trustful, and respectful relationships are the core ingredient to collaboration and psychological safety, it's therefore of extreme importance. It is improbable people will speak up unless there are strong relationships built on trust. 

    We become guarded where there is no trust. When we are guarded, we don’t talk to each other about non-work stuff. We don’t get to know each other for the humans we are. This leads to our brains filling in the blanks about other people, especially when they say or do something we disagree with. What happens next? Gossip. 

    It will negatively affect productivity, undermine credibility, and create a toxic workplace.

    Strategies for Fostering Healthy Venting Sessions

    Here at DX, we have implemented several strategies to create an environment that fosters healthy venting. 

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    Feedback Focused

    First, we are a feedback-focused organization.

    Up, down, lateral – we ask for Feedback.

    We believe that issues should be addressed quickly within our team and the best way to identify those issues is to talk about them in a way that focuses on specific instances and behaviors. 

    This is a way to foster our relationships with each other, our clients, and our vendors.

    I am more likely to trust you if you tell me the truth. Feedback is simply the transfer of data from person to person. What’s working, and what is not. If I hear someone say something about me, it’s the quickest way to erode trust and create those guards and territorialism, that in term leads to silos and teams at war. 

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    1 to 1 Conversations 

    Second, we create a space for one-on-one conversations.
    Weekly – I schedule a time to talk with each of my direct reports. It’s a conversation that starts with the question, “What’s on your mind”? (Thanks Michael Bungay Steiner for that one!). Second question. “What’s the most important thing we should be talking about?” Another question I have at the ready… "What’s your biggest worry?”

    As we are small enough, I have a monthly 1-on-1 with all our employees about their current projects, issues they may be facing, and a general check-in.

    I make myself available to listen to the things that are top of mind. In most conversations, I try not to talk, just look for the non-verbal cues and write notes. 

    When an issue comes up, my role is to keep them on task – which should be to solve the problem.
    I can redirect the conversation if it veers into complaining or gossip territory as I did in the earlier example.
    With a monthly touch point, I can also get a sense of larger issues and minimize the impact of stress on the team. 

    This is all about building relationships.

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    Vent Sessions 

    Finally, we have created a formal space to air our issues out together as a team. 

    A couple of times a month we gather to have a vent session. 

    This is a timed meeting where everyone has a chance to bring up an ISSUE that is causing them stress. 
    This is specifically not about a person. 

    This is not the time for feedback.

    This is about processes, problems, or circumstances that are causing grief. 

    As a team we can ask questions and dig for more information and the goal is to start drafting out a plan to address the issue. 
    This meeting is fantastic for providing clarity and helps the team have empathy for one another.

    It's likely that the issues presented may have never been shared before.

    When we hear what is stressing someone out directly from them, we have a chance to strengthen the relationship.  
    This ongoing meeting is all about working towards solutions.

    We don't solve our issues in these meetings, but we are given the opportunity to hear other perspectives and plan for a solution. 
    Once an issue is out in the open, it is so much easier to work together to solve it.

    At the end of the day, venting is human behavior. 

    As long as your culture encourages the right behaviors (and discourages the bad ones) it can lead to ingenuity, productivity, and a free flow of information. 

    That level of clarity and empathy in relationships will lead to autonomy and equity within any organization

    Get in touch and let’s discuss how DX’s leadership training programs, and Alex’s keynotes, can transform your teams.

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