To Whom are Leaders Allowed to Vent?

Curtis H. sent me a question via Linked-In:

“As a previous leader in my fraternal organization at University, I found staying positive and bottling complaints overwhelming at times. If leaders shouldn’t show insecurity or vent around their followers, then is there an appropriate way to relieve those feelings?”

Excellent question, Curtis.

There are definitely inappropriate ways to vent those feelings. As my mom always told me, “What you focus on expands.”

When you vent your frustrations out to others, you may be finished afterwards. After all, you really just needed to get it out of your system. However, those to whom you vented might exaggerate or dwell on your thoughts. Essentially, you “got rid” of your feelings by giving them to someone else.

Theoretically, venting is supposed to release and let go, but research shows that isn’t usually the case. Instead, venting might invite more negative energy. This happens both on a neurological level and a psychological level by keeping the negativity at the forefronts of our minds.

However, you do need to process.

You need places to process your feelings and thoughts so that you can have a gut check and see if you have a problem to solve as a leader. One of the best ways to do this is through writing or journaling. Venting assumes emotional involvement in a problem. But when we are emotionally involved, we often are unable to think clearly and with empathy. By writing, we are better able to sort out our thoughts and feelings.

If, after writing, you still feel like you need to process, here are three ideas, in order of preference, in my opinion:

1) YOUR boss/leader. This person is a main resource for you in the workplace. You don’t want to sound like a complainer, of course, so be careful about the frequency. Your boss wants you to succeed and learn, so processing with them might be a part of how they coach and lead you. 

2) A spouse/significant other. This person knows you well, and they are often far enough away from the situation to stay objective about your work team.

3) A coach, spiritual leader, or counselor. If things are rough at work, consider going to an independent business coach, a rabbi/pastor/imam, or a counselor/therapist. Those professionals have great tools.

I love these words from James Autry, from his book The Servant Leader:

“First, they still need to be able to find meaning in their work and to feel it is important.

Next, they need your honest appraisal about the real conditions of the economy, the market, and the possible impact on their jobs.

And finally, they need the reassurance of seeing you, the leader, remaining calm and centered and focused in the midst of the crisis.”

While it’s okay to express your concern, people don’t need to have their own fears imposed on them. They don’t need an environment of increased stress and anxiety.

Great question from Curtis. What follow-up questions do you all have?

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

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