Disassembling Leadership

A three stages view on managing workplace rants

3 minute read

I know some people don’t like when people rant or vent on the workplace, but my perspective is simple: it’s just human. Stopping a teammate — or someone reporting to you — from ranting just means… it will move elsewhere. If it happens elsewhere, it means that the opportunity to use it as a distress signal is lost.

I want also to point out one simple thing: if someone does that with me, it’s a sign of trust. Especially if I’m their manager, it’s a sign that I created a safe space for them to express it and process difficult emotions. I’m grateful, and this is the starting point.

Managing rants and vents is thus one of the skills that a good manager can develop once they have created a safe space. First rule is the one I already mentioned: don’t shut it down, and instead provide the space for them to express it.

The variable to take in account is time.
There are three stages we can consider.

Stage 1: give space

Some time to vent is good. It gets things out. It gives the manager a view of what they are thinking. It allows people to be human. To feel listened.

As a manager, it’s essential here to just let people express, validate them, and don’t judge them. If something is too much (i.e. badmouthing someone) you can of course at this stage point out that’s ok to not feel great about someone, but there’s a limit to it and it’s important to stay professional. But it shouldn’t sound like a “shut down”, more like a “hey, that’s not you speaking right now”.

Stage 2: let them process

Then there’s an intermediate stage where the vent is being processed and should get less intense over time. For some people this is quick, for some people it takes longer, but if this happens on its own, it’s good. It means people are moving on.

As a manager, here it’s still important to be in listening mode, but it starts being time to help them get “out” of it if they are finding it difficult to do themselves. Use good driving questions to help them figure a way out on their own. Help them to shift their thoughts from the “past” to the “future”, from “happened” to “fixable”.

Stage 3: dragged

Then there’s a too much stage. A person reaches this phase where they show no slowing down in the venting, and it shifts from a justified instance to a pattern.

As a manger, it’s important to see at this point if the context or environment has stopped creating the problem for the person, or not: was it a single event? or is it continuing? This of course can be evaluated from the start, but at this point it becomes a must to assess it:

  • If the context has not stopped, then it’s essential to act and fix whatever it is that’s protracting and causing distress. And keep supporting the person.
  • If the context has stopped and the person is still venting, here the attitude changes from listening-and-guiding to guiding-and-pushing (at incremental level of intensity) to help the people get out. If it’s a lot, I’d even point out explicitly they are stuck in a pattern, and help them reflect on it.

In my experience when I used the loose guidelines above was in scenarios where there was a specific event in the past, done and completed, that was difficult and needed time to process. This is not uncommon for example in cases of layoffs, reorgs, or reassignment to different major projects (usually without asking).

The note at the end about the context is important, because if this is something ongoing (like a relationship with someone) then waiting it out isn’t the correct strategy: it’s important to act as soon as possible to address the environmental cause.