The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 21, 2018 1:00 am

Venting about unfair boss detrimental

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

Think twice before you badmouth the boss.

Is it solving anything? Probably not.

Are you still angry after you get done complaining? Probably.

Research by a team that included an Indiana University professor suggests that when employees talk negatively about unfair supervisors their anger actually increases. They tend to be less effective, turnover increases and there's less support for company initiatives.

“Our study shows that forgiving is a critical step in moving past unfairness,” said Ryan Outlaw, an assistant professor of management at the Kelley School of Business at IUPUI. “If you can't move on, you're less likely to perform your best at work.”

Outlaw was part of the research team that developed a paper titled “Pacification or Aggravation? The Effects of Talking about Supervisor Unfairness.”  

Co-authors on the paper include Michael Baer of Arizona State University; Jessica Rodell, Jason Colquitt, Kate Zipay and Rachel Burgess of the University of Georgia; and Rashpal Dhensa-Kahlon of the University of Surrey.

The findings were initially published online in the summer of 2017 but included this month in the Academy of Management Journal, an IU spokeswoman said.

The researchers surveyed nearly 200 bus drivers in seven depots across London and more than 100 undergraduate business students in the U.S., looking for key words and behaviors among both co-workers and students when discussing unfairness.

During a telephone interview last week, Outlaw suggested the survey findings might be similar among any other group – blue collar or white collar.

“Unfairness is just pervasive anywhere you go,” he said. “Overall I don't know that I can think of a place where you're not going to feel some unfairness.”

The researchers found the detrimental effects of unfairness talk were neutralized when the co-worker listening to the talk offered suggestions that reframed the unfair situation by providing an alternative perspective.

But how common is that, compared with the times a listening worker sympathizes with the person venting and may even add their own complaints?

Outlaw realizes the potential for venting to become infectious. Sometimes, it can be helpful to share frustrations, but with a willingness to “let it go.”

“You hold onto that stuff, it impacts not only you, but everyone around you,” he said.

Colleagues listening to complaints are hopefully mature enough to appropriately direct the conversation to look at things from a different perspective. They might be able to help a co-worker consider alternative ways to interpret the behavior of a boss.

“You don't have to be an expert, you don't have to know every detail when you're trying to help people see things from a different angle,” Outlaw said.

The researchers didn't explore how comfortable workers may feel going to a supervisor – the source of their frustration. But Outlaw said how workers have been treated in the past affects their perception about how they will likely be treated going forward.

To share a thought, a favorite quote or other wisdom about leadership, email Lisa Green at Lead On also appears online as a blog at

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