Is There a Rightful Place for Workplace Whining?

Venting at work can help relieve employee stress and maybe even lead to improvements.

Whining is usually considered a bad thing, but in-office gripe sessions could have their uses, according to a new article in CIO magazine by Bob Lewis.

Lewis notes that among the many things lost in telecommuting is the ability for shared in-person commiseration. You can commiserate by phone, text, and video call, but there’s nothing like a bumping into a colleague in the kitchen or restroom and finding that you have so much in common—to complain about. Most of us have been taught to try to be positive, but complaining can be cathartic and relieve stress.

“Venting serves the same purpose in organizational dynamics that the relief valve serves on a pressure cooker: It keeps the pressure at a level low enough that the whole apparatus doesn’t explode,” Lewis writes.

Bearing your burden alone can take a toll, regardless of how petty the burden is. At my first full-time job, I didn’t enjoy my manager. One of my colleagues and I used to laugh together about her difficult nature, joking one time that she didn’t need a parking spot because she could hang her broom up in her office. It’s not nice to laugh behind a colleague’s back, but sometimes there is little recourse. I had tried reasoning with the manager as did my colleague, to no avail. We couldn’t do anything about her, so sharing our frustration about her allowed us to continue doing our jobs rather than losing our tempers and stomping out of the office.

Venting Needs to Be In-Person

Lewis notes that online collaboration and meeting spaces are insufficient for venting. One reason is that no one usually plans or schedules in advance to gripe. It happens organically during casual interactions. “Even for the most prosaic aspects of collaboration, on-screen interactions are a pale substitute for what in-person relationships make possible. Like, that is, bumping into a buddy when something has annoyed you and you need to vent,” Lewis writes.

One idea I might implement as a manager—which is only possible if most of a work team lives reasonably close to one another—is to have monthly lunches. Once a month, you have an hour-long lunch together, on the company’s dime, at a low-to-moderate priced restaurant. Eating together with colleagues is as close as a mostly remote work group is going to get to the spontaneous bump-into. You’re all together, but not to do work or necessarily talk business. That leaves ample time for griping.

Teaching Managers to Facilitate Gripe Sessions

Should managers be guided, or even taught, how to facilitate cathartic work-related griping? They may need to be taught that it’s OK when customers are not around to have honest, sometimes negative, conversations. The complaining doesn’t have to be productive—at least not at first. The group could spend 20 minutes just complaining about everything that annoys them about the office and the company before, finally, the manager helps them pivot to solutions. The manager could be trained to listen carefully to griping sessions for opportunities to implement changes. They should listen closely, even when the griping is unproductive.

The manager could say something like, “I know what you mean—I also can’t stand the new online payment system we have to use to pay contract employees. Is there anything you think we could ask Human Resources about to have changed? The manager could jot down ideas shared over lunch, or, if no solutions were found, the complaints. The notes should never include who the complaints came from. You don’t want employees to feel like the manager is a spy among them.

Taking Griping to the Top

You can take the idea of valuing, and learning, from griping to the top levels of the company. Maybe once a quarter, or a couple times a year, each work group submits their top five complaints about the company and their work life. The top executives then review these complaints and discuss among themselves which, if any, of them seem valid and offer opportunities for improvement.

Then—gasp!—the top executives can add in their own personal gripes to the conversation. They may be shocked at how often their complaints overlap with those of their employees. You never know sometimes how much company you have in your misery until you share that misery with others.

Does complaining have a place in your organization? How do you enable this catharsis, which can safeguard employee psyches and lead to improvements?