I’m sure we all experience a multitude of frustrations at work, and it can feel infinitely better to get it out than keep it bottled up. Alas, a recent study suggests that grumbling to colleagues can do more harm than good.
The study suggests that when we complain to our peers about certain injustices at work, all it does is cement those injustices and their impact. Indeed, the best response, they suggest, is to treat such events with a degree of humor.
Participants in the study were asked to complete a diary each work day, with each entry concluding with them revealing whether they had complained that day, whether they’d dwelt on the grievance, and whether they thought the issue was a serious one. If the participant scored lowly in each of these areas, they were tagged as being ‘good sports’.
Participants were also asked to record any negative events they’d experienced each day, and to give a score for its severity, together with their mood during the day and their general engagement levels.
When the data was analyzed, it emerged that those scoring lowly for ‘sportsmanship’ tended to regard negative events as more severe. They would also take a greater toll on their mood and engagement levels. What’s more, this carried over into the next day, both in terms of mood and engagement with their job.
Conversely, when sportsmanship was high, and employees took difficulties in their stride, those same bad events didn’t have such a large impact, even if the participants themselves felt the events were severe.
So what’s behind this? The authors suggest that there are two main reasons. Firstly, they suggest that when we revisit an event, it makes it stick in our mind for longer, thus deepening our association between it and the negative emotions we associate with it. Secondly, if we react negatively to the event, such as by complaining to the wrong person, it can actually make things worse.
Of course, another reason might be the mental distraction negative events cause. A study I wrote about recently explored the impact rudeness had on the performance and wellbeing of medical staff.
The study found that rudeness can contribute to a 40% drop in performance, which is almost double that attributed to a lack of sleep.
“[Rudeness] is actually affecting the cognitive system, which directly affects your ability to perform,” the authors say. “That tells us something very interesting. People may think that doctors should just ‘get over’ the insult and continue doing their job. However, the study shows that even if doctors have the best intentions in mind, as they usually do, they cannot get over rudeness because it interferes with their cognitive functioning without an ability to control it.”
So how might such situations be handled better? The authors tested a number of interventions to explore the best way to mitigate the influence rudeness has on performance.
For instance, some of the participants played a game prior to the study that was designed to raise the threshold of their sensitivities to anger and aggression. Another group of participants undertook an exercise after the patient interaction that consisted of writing about the experience from the perspective of the mother.
Interestingly, it was the computer game that had the biggest influence, with playing it prior to the examination resulting in the same level of performance as those in the control group who had not experienced any aggression from the parents.
What seems clear is that talking about our problems isn’t necessarily the answer to managing those difficult situations we encounter at work. At least not the purposeless complaining that our workplace grumbles often are.