Why Venting Is A Trust Buster
I recently worked with a leadership team who had a history of triangulation and venting. They decided that in order to accomplish their organization’s objectives, they needed to have greater trust and transparency among them.
This type of venting takes place on teams all the time. Although we often don’t mean it to be harmful, this back-end venting can turn out to be toxic. When we seek satisfaction with someone who can’t solve the problem, rather than address the issues with someone who can, we passively perpetuate dissatisfaction with the person or situation.
This team decided to make a sacred commitment to consciously avoid engaging in triangulation with each other. Part of this sacred commitment was to take transparent actions that involved the people directly involved when “yucky moments” (their term) took place. Instead of venting to team member B about team member A, they determined to have the conversation directly with team member A instead.
This is not a novel intention within leadership teams. Although most leaders can state this idea, my experience is that few practice it. As the team shared why they hadn’t been doing this already, I was struck by how powerfully attractive venting is.
This team, for example, recognized that they had used venting as a mechanism for releasing the pressure of their tensions and emotions around these “yucky moments,” all the while avoiding the discomfort of a difficult conversation. Furthermore, since we invariably vent to people that agree with us, we reinforce the powerful sensation of being right (and that the person being vented about is wrong).
One of the member of the team realized that when people came to his office to vent, it was flattering for his ego to be the “confidante”. Not to mention the look-a-like of connection, because you and I are aligned about the faults of the other person.
Whether we are the one venting or the one listening, at Learning as Leadership, we call this “making bad”. In that moment, we are characterizing the other person as wholly negative, and disempowering their full potential as a person and leader.
Unfortunately, these delightful feelings (we call them ‘ego benefits’) come with costs: assumptions go unchallenged, conclusions about the other person are reinforced, and Us vs. Them dynamics are created. Once camps are formed, it becomes impossible to build trust.
In my experience, if a team isn’t ready to let go of these ego benefits, they won’t change the dysfunctions they cause.
This leadership team was faced with the dilemma of not wanting to vent, but also not wanting people to not express their concerns. That’s how they came up with a rule for responsible venting. It looks like this:
You have a problem with team member A, and you go to team member B and say, “Look. I need to clear my head. I need to vent. I need to get this out before I go talk to team member A.”
The agreement is that team member B may receive the communication, but only if you (the speaker) have a commitment to talk to team member A afterward. Team member B’s side might go something like this:
“OK. If you need to clear your mind, I will listen. But I also need to be clear with you that I’m going to support you to talk to team member A.”
Once you’ve said your piece, team member B’s practice can also involve helping you to rebalance your perspective about team member A. It is never as one sided as we think it is in our moment of outrage.
Then you need to actually go have the conversation. If you don’t follow through on this step, falling back into unproductive triangulation is just a matter of time.
We call this type of communication “making good”. It’s not about making ourselves or others “feel” good. Making good often requires going through our own comfort zone and letting go of the look-a-like of gratification and connection. Responsible venting and making good are keys to create trust and safety within a team.
What has been the impact on your team of back-end venting? How did you stop it? We would love to hear your comments.