Why venting at work doesn’t help

November 11, 2011, 3:28 PM UTC

By Shelley DuBois, writer-reporter

FORTUNE — Picture this: you’re pumped to start your work day with a cup of coffee, when you see that your jerk co-worker has left the break room in shambles: grounds everywhere, dish soap oozing on the counter, half-opened sugar packets on the floor by the trash.

So frustrating. And if you’re like most of us, the first thing you want to do is blow off steam. You don’t really want to get the person fired for sugar packet litter, or even have some kind of awkward conflict resolution conversation about it, but it’s inconsiderate. And you need to vent.

We think of venting as a transfer of heat; as “blowing off steam,” meaning anger, which would otherwise stay inside, creating pressure which could cause us to explode at an inopportune moment. Venting is different than complaining, which means voicing a concern with the goal of changing something or addressing the cause of the problem.

You can get a kind of warped satisfaction from talking about being angry without necessarily wanting to change the circumstances that trigger that emotion. But research suggests that venting anger doesn’t get rid of it. Instead, it amplifies those negative feelings.

There are some obvious downsides to showing your anger in this way — some studies suggest that angry people tend to be at greater risk for heart disease. But besides the larger health risks, fuming employees can corrode a workplace environment.

Even so, venting is an office staple. The average employee either vents or hears someone else vent about four times a day, according to Kristin Behfar, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “Most papers on venting find that it’s negative, but they stop there. They don’t find what the listener does,” Behfar says. So she and her colleagues worked on a study, currently under review, that looks at the best way to mitigate the damaging effects of venting.

The worst thing a listener can do, the researchers found, is agree with an angry co-worker. “When you feed the flame, it burns longer,” says Brad Bushman, an anger expert at Ohio State University’s School of Communication. “Listeners who agree are just keeping angry feelings alive when the key is to let them die.”

Listeners can diffuse destructive venting, but it can be difficult to do at work. First off, a small percentage of employees probably enjoy venting for the sake of it and may not care about the consequences, Behfar says. In that case, there’s little a listener can do.

Venting at work is particularly prevalent because the hierarchy at many offices can make people feel like their hands are tied. Very few among us enjoy confronting someone with an issue, especially if the issue stems from an authority figure. Instead, most of us vent to likeable people who tend to agree with us. Unfortunately, complaining to people that we trust can keep our anger alive longer.

“The danger is that if you get a response that confirms a negative emotion, you can become a brooder,” Behfar says. The brooder: another negative office personality, perhaps even worse than break room mess guy.

The best way to keep from egging on an upset person, Behfar found, is to offer a new take on a frustrating situation, or provide context that can help convince a co-worker that the problem isn’t that big of a deal.

It’s a rather anti-climatic way to cope with such a powerful feeling, and being told to calm down can deflate the rush that comes with feeling angry, which some people like. In fact, a couple of years ago, a producer for talk show The View called Bushman as a potential guest who would teach four angry women, the show’s hosts, how best to vent. That would be the worst thing he could do, Bushman told the producer. The best way to deal with anger isn’t to vent it or bottle it, he said, but address the emotion and then tone it down.

Some good methods include counting to 10, diverting angry thoughts with an activity such as a crossword puzzle, or doing something that makes it hard for even the biggest hot heads to stay enraged, like petting a puppy.

Those activities would not make for good television, the producer said, and Bushman was not invited on the show.

But the tactics Bushman suggested can be more productive ways to address anger than merely letting it all out to a colleague. So the next time you want to tell your co-worker about the coffee room disaster zone, make sure you find someone who will offer you new insight, or just tell you to calm down. That, or keep plenty of puppies handy.