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An Alternative to Venting

This is the third and final installment in our series on “venting.”  If you have not yet read Parts I and II, please see “A LEOs Prerogative to Vent” and “Solution-Focused Venting.”

“Venting” is, as we’ve discussed so far in this series, is a normal part of the police life.  That cops like to gripe – about the job, crooks, victims, bosses, politicians, judges, lawyers, their equipment, the media, the public… you get the picture – is likely no surprise to anyone reading this.  But, as we’ve also discussed, venting is not always a harmless outlet; if excessive or uncontrolled, it can actually harm rather than help individual, group, and organizational morale, lead to increased stress and possibly even depression or burnout, and become the end result of frustration rather than a means to an end. 

In “Solution-Focused Venting” we began exploring ways to make venting less about “blowing off steam” – a temporary fix with possible long-term negative consequences – and more about becoming the first step toward actually finding solutions for the things that drive you to vent.  We ended the article with a promise to return with one simple, if easily overlooked, step in solution-focused venting. 


It’s certainly true that if you’re around somebody that’s giving you many compliments, you start giving people compliments yourself.  If you’re around people who are more positive in general, you get more positive.  On the other hand, when you’re unhappy and you’re bitching all the time, you’re not just affecting yourself, you’re affecting other people, too, and you’re also teaching them how to act or not act.

-           Ed Diener, PhD (Professor of Psychology – emeritus, University of Illinois), quoted in Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zone Way.

Think about this part of Diener’s quote:  “…when you’re unhappy and you’re bitching all the time… you’re affecting other people too, and… teaching them how to act or not act.”  Does this happen where you work?  Are your words, or the words of others around you, defining the acceptable culture of your organization?  And is that culture the kind that promotes or destroys morale?

Then think about the first part of his quote, that of giving compliments and being positive and the contagious effect of being positive.  Are your words or the words of others around you the kind that build up others instead of ignoring those things they do deserving of recognition and praise?  Unfortunately, it common to ignore the positive in favor of that about which we can complain, or take for granted the good people do while focusing on their shortcomings.  It’s even worse if we feel slighted; when compliments for a job well done, creative policing, or going above and beyond are in short supply, becoming the one to start passing them out to others may not feel natural. 

It may not feel natural anyway.  As we’ve traveled and provided training to police officers and supervisors, particularly our class Police Morale for Supervisors:  It IS Your Problem, corresponded with cops because of our articles, and studied the phenomena of low morale in policing, it seems LE is a profession where too often the focus inordinately falls on suspicions and petty jealousies among the ranks instead of looking for ways to support and build each other up.  Of course, this isn’t universal and may not describe you or your organization but it may.  Does it sound at all familiar?

The final step of solution-focused venting is not really a part of the venting process.  It is, however, an important step in changing your mindset from one of constant complaint to positive thought.  To some extent, it’s a huge shift in the way a lot of officers and agencies do business.  Simply put, the final step is making a decision to engage in more positive thought processes, with the physical manifestation of that to be changing the content of your conversation from negative (complaining, etc) to positive (speaking complimentarily, etc). 

NOTE** This does NOT mean you should give up your sense of humor, sarcasm, etc… those are important coping skills and a part of who you are.  It also doesn’t mean you should become the in-house Eddie Haskell; that’d just creep everyone out and could be hazardous to your health.  Nor should you ignore those problem areas that need to be addressed (see “Solution-Focused Venting”). 

Key findings from “The Orange Revolution” by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton

In their book “The Orange Revolution,” authors and experts in the field of employee engagement Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton examined what they deemed “revolutionary teams” within certain organizations – so named for their high performance and ability to generate breakthrough success among their own people, and to transform even the larger organizations of which they are a part – by using empirical research conducted by the Best Companies Group.  The studies they relied examined 350,000 participants from 28 industries. 

These revolutionary teams studied, and the people who comprise them, were remarkable for not only their effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity but also for the levels of employee satisfaction and engagement among the individuals who comprise them. 

One of the key findings were that the teams and team members shared five universal characteristics, which were:

1)    The teams all shared a belief in their own ability to write the future.

2)    People in breakthrough teams report their highest loyalty is to one another – the other team members.

3)    Breakthrough teams understand that important work relationships require effort, and all members agree to:

  • Demonstrate personal competency
  • Expand their competency with leadership traits of goal setting, communication, trust, accountability, and recognition.

4)    Breakthrough teams clearly visualize and stay focused on the Big Picture, or their driving sense of mission.

5)    Breakthrough teams follow what Gostick and Elton call “The Rule of 3”

  • “Wow” – Breakthrough teams commit to a standard of world class excellence
  • “No Surprises” – All team members are accountable for open and honest debate, and each knows what to expect from others.
  • “Cheer” – Team members support, recognize, appreciate, and cheer others and the group on to victory.

There’s not a lot of room for negativity, pessimism, jealousy, and backbiting in there; in fact, optimism, focus, loyalty, and mission are crucial to success. And, for our purposes, especially consider the final component of the “Rule of 3.”  Breakthrough team members cheer and encourage each other.  They give compliments, celebrate success, hold others up for recognition, and take pride in the success of their fellow team members.  How often do you see that where you work?  How different would the place be if it was the norm?

Is your organization or, if you belong to a large agency, team or smaller group with which you work, one that embraces a culture of support (beyond that of providing physical safety and back-up), recognition, appreciation, and cheering each other’s accomplishments?  Or is it one with an undercurrent of personal and professional jealousies, looking out for “Number 1,” and minor political intrigues?  Unfortunately, too many law enforcement agencies are the latter. 

Focusing on recognizing your colleagues need not become an all-day, every day hug-fest; in fact, that would probably become annoying and counterproductive.  But making an effort to look for those things that your colleagues do particularly well, and then taking time to make sure they are recognized, would likely go far toward changing cultures of negativity that permeate many departments.  It also works wonders tempering unhealthy cynicism and unproductive venting.  It’s hard to stay critical when one decides to seek out that which should be celebrated.  Try it for yourself.


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.