As I’ve described before, Daniel Goleman’s work in Primal Leadership hits a strong chord and constructive advice for leaders, experienced and new, particularly in the main thesis that “fundamental task of leadership is to prime good feeling in those they lead.”

Leaders must intervene when bad feeling exhibits itself in the workplace — out loud, in email, text or chat — and help people channel their frustration into positive energy. Making sure venting doesn’t evolve into poisonous festering is one of the most important “soft skills” leaders need to learn — and can’t come too soon.

In my interviews for my upcoming book (more on that later), I’ve talked with dozens of leaders across the country who struggle with working with team members who indiscriminately and consistently “vent their frustration” with colleagues, partners, or clients in public, in a way that snowballs and spreads across organizations instead of relieving pressure and letting people move on. The common thread seems to be a desire to be liked and regarded as “one of the group.”

Leaders are, by definition, part of the group – but their responsibility is not join in, it is to lead the group from negative to positive.

The first step here is to understand the difference between venting — letting off steam and quickly moving to a go-forward attitude —  and festering, poisonous complaining by people, who by definition, are flawed.

Leaders identify the difference between venting and poisonous complaining.

Leaders find ways to shut that behavior down as soon as they see it.

Leaders intervene, respectfully, in public.

So what to do when complaining gets out of hand about a colleague?

Intervene by moving through statements and questions like the following.

  • “I understand. What’s your suggestion for moving forward?”
  • “I understand. Let’s take this offline and loop back with everyone later.”
  • “I’ll take your feedback on this later.”

If the behavior doesn’t stop with these, move to statements such as:

  • “Complaining like this is not acceptable. None of us is perfect. I understand you are frustrated, but we will be moving forward now.

And if emotions are just too high, stop the meeting.

Next step, meeting individually with the complainers and have them walk through the situation. What is fixable? What is not? Sort it out. It may take some time. It will take effort. And then reconvene the team, and outline how the team will resolve differences going forward.

To get from negative to positive you must go through zero. Leaders intervene with negative to get to zero as fast as possible so that positive feeling is restored and people can move forward.