Vindication is sweet. Often have I counseled a no-drama approach to the workplace. And to everyday life too. I have often suggested that it is better to see life as a game than as a drama. It's better to see yourself as a player than as a thespian.
Now, a study from the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology has demonstrated that I was correct. It tells us that it is best not to complain and not to dramatize issues that arise in the workplace. Instead of complaining you should show what the authors call sportsmanship. Yes, indeed.
Their abstract tells the story; with apologies for quoting academese:
We explicitly focused on good sportsmanship or abstaining from unnecessary complaints and criticism as a possible moderator of the effects of daily negative work events on daily work engagement and positive affect.
We tested this possibility with a 3-day diary study among 112 employees. As expected, we found that daily negative events lowered daily engagement and momentary positive affect for two consecutive days. However, this effect only held on days that people exhibited low sportsmanship. For days that people exhibited high sportsmanship, there were no significant effects. Creating a resource rich work environment that enhances individuals’ sportsmanship behaviour can help to minimize the unfavourable impact of daily negative events.
Negative work events are inevitable. How you handle them is not. If you follow the lame advice offered by the denizens of the therapy culture you will feel compelled to confront the person who offended you or even the person who did not do his job very. You might want to vent your deepest feelings, because you have been told that bottling them up will give you cancer. And you might even choose to lean in, the better to show them how tough and strong and assertive you are. The research suggests that such is a bad approach. It is posturing, not gamesmanship.
You should not see yourself as a human monad trying to regulate the pressure of your emotional gasses but as a team member whose goal should be to advance the best interests of the team.
Alex Fradera explains the research in the Research Digest of the British Psychological Society:
But when sportsmanship was high – meaning that participants hadn’t complained, escalated minor issues, or stewed over things too much – bad events, even if rated as severe, didn’t impact mood or work engagement, that day or the next. Demeroutia and Cropanzano think there may be two reasons for this. Firstly, revisiting the event gives it a second wind, further reinforcing the association between it and the normally transient negative emotions that were initially provoked, turning a bad experience into That Bad Experience. Secondly, if complaints are poorly expressed or directed at the wrong person, they can exacerbate the situation, and that’s all too possible when you are still caught up in a drama.
As for a better alternative when problems need to be solved, Fradera offers this advice, from the research:
When a problem keeps manifesting in an organisation or relationship you need to resolve it, and that begins by putting it into words. But purposeless complaining can just as easily be a way to avoid moving on, the out-loud version of mental rumination keeping us in its undertow. Demeroutia and Cropanzano point to more constructive methods like expressive writing, which have an evidence base showing success in making sense of negative experience. This form of reflection, or attentive conversation focused on straightening out a knotty problem, are vastly preferred to unconstructive venting.
Negotiate your differences. Don't dramatize them. The first can solve a problem. The second cannot. One is amused to note that the out-loud version of mental rumination corresponds well to what used to be called Freudian free association.
The moral of the story comes from director Lee Daniels. In his words: “Stop complaining.” “Do your work.”