Jack drives you crazy at work. He is on your project team and your frustration with his laziness and lax standards are driving you crazy (again). So you pop into Susan’s (another co-worker’s) office to vent your frustrations.
Ding. Ding. Ding.
You have inadvertently started a firestorm that has the potential to further erode your relationship with Jack, compromise your relationship with Susan, and sabotage the trust and cohesion that exists within the entire team. Of course, you didn’t mean to cause problems; you simply wanted to vent your annoyance.
Here are four reasons why complaining about a co-worker to another is never a good idea (and four things you can do instead that will help):
1. Venting might feel good at the time, but when it comes to talking trash about another person, it always has a bite.
It’s one thing to vent outside of work to someone not associated with the team. This expression may release steam and trusted friends may help you craft a path forward with the object of your frustration. But at work, on a team, it will feel at best like gossip and at worse total and complete betrayal to the person in question. Missing the opportunity to get peer feedback straight up increases the likelihood that the person in question will feel caught off guard, slandered and treated poorly. Broken trust is hard, if not impossible, to re-build.
What to do instead: Vent with friends at home, ask for empathy for your challenges, and then take your issue straight to the source. The last step is the most important and eliminates the dangerous triangle that gossip creates.
2. The innocent co-worker you speak with can’t help but be affected by your perspective.
Susan, in the scenario above, may have previously really liked and trusted Jack. But now that you have leaked your complaints, her view of Jack is forever tainted. She no longer sees him in a positive light, and may now seek confirmation of the problems you mentioned whereas before she open-heartedly interacted with him in true partnership. Plus, she now has to try to keep a secret, since you asked her not to share anything, so she has to suppress what she knows you feel about Jack every time she sees him.
What to do instead: If you need it, ask the non-involved colleague for feedback on your approach in talking to the person in question, rather than complaining about him and her. This makes it about you, not them. Make sure you let them know that your intention is to work it out with the other person, and that you know you have contributed to the problem.
3. Trust is the primary currency of healthy partnership, and talking behind someone’s back erodes trust.
To trust, we must be vulnerable, and at work that often means admitting mistakes, showing what we don’t know or asking for help. Receiving critical feedback is the ultimate vulnerability, and in strong partnership we can learn and grow because of it. But if we get feedback in a third-party way, it erodes the faith and confidence essential for team health.
What to do instead: Spend time thinking about and preparing for delivering feedback to the colleague who annoys you in a caring, concise and clear way. Delivering this to them will build trust and confidence, resulting in an increased ability to talk honestly with each other, problem-solve hard issues, and co-create innovations and ideas. S/he may not eradicate the annoying behavior, but at least they can now begin working on it. What really matters is that you are clear, direct, caring and compassionate. Your purpose is to learn to work better with them, not to draw a line in the sand about them changing.
4. Most of us want to know the truth, and strive to improve once we get it.
Despite the fact that most of us want to run screaming to the hills when we hear those dreaded words, “May I give you some feedback?” we also secretly crave it. The impression we make on others is our impact at work, and when delivered with care, most of us want to embrace and learn from the observations of others. Jack, in this scenario, is not consciously trying to annoy you. Bringing his behavioral impact on you to his attention guarantees that at least the two of you now have a basis for co-learning and sharing as you work together.
What to do instead: Offer feedback in the spirit of learning and with an intention to remain in partnership, rather than exit stage left. In addition to giving feedback, ask for it, so that you can walk your talk with this colleague. Most problems between people are contributed to by both parties, so what do you have to learn?
Related: 18 Ways to Gain Trust at Work