Organisations are busy and under pressure.
The more pressure we feel, the greater our need to find a valve to release it.
To blow off off steam.
But the way we do this is very tricky. You can blow off steam with three intentions, and each intention has a pitfall.
Blowing off steam to vent
In turbulent times, it is nice to be able to vent to each other once in a while. So it can be very functional to start conversations with a ’round of isn’t it awful’. Shared sorrow is half a sorrow, we say.
This becomes a pitfall if it takes up valuable time that is needed to take the next steps together. Blowing off steam is at the expense of decisiveness, which only increases the pressure. It helps to limit the time you spend on blowing off steam. Then you invite the mind back to the table, to continue the conversation about your tasks.
Blowing off steam to be helped
A coach, trainer or counsellor who faces a client overflowing with emotion will first invite him to empty the bucket. This creates the mental space for the other person to be helped. Then, letting off steam has the function of enabling reflection.
The pitfall here is confusion of intent. You only come to vent your heart and the other person thinks you are asking for help. So you share your grief and the other person will advise you or solve it for you. This creates friction on both sides. You go on the defensive by explaining how complicated your situation is. The other person wonders why you come to him with a problem if you are not open to his help.
This pitfall is to be avoided by both sides. If you are the one who wants to blow off steam, you must be clear about your intention (“I don’t need advice, I just need to let it out”). If you are the helper, once the initial pressure is off, you can ask “can I help you?” If the other person doesn’t say “yes”, don’t help.
Blowing off steam to take the moral high ground
With the third intention you blow off steam against John about the behaviour of Pete, who is not present. You get worked up about his behaviour in the hope that John will agree with you. You use this support as reassurance that the situation is not your fault, and that you are free to wallow in your anger. You and John are the good guys, Pete is the bad guy.
Blowing off steam with this intention is always a pitfall. Not only does it not change Pete’s behaviour, it makes organisations unsafe. Consciously or unconsciously, John will register that you are being judgmental about people who are not there. And that you will do the same about him.
If blowing off steam is not at the expense of decisiveness and if you do not misuse it to take the moral high ground, it is an indispensable valve to regulate pressure in turbulent organisations.
Annemarie Mars, May 2022