In our pursuit of healthy team dynamics, companies invest significant resources into strategies aimed at developing people and optimising performance. Yet, there’s a silent threat that can undermine even the most well-designed people strategy: that of resentment!

So what is this notion of resentment?

It’s a complex emotion that’s difficult to define and even harder to process and share with others.

The only way I can describe the feeling of resentment is a sense of bitterness that arises when I perceive unfairness, mistreatment or unresolved issues. It’s a mixture of anger and disappointment all rolled into one. It tends to simmer beneath the surface, affecting my thoughts, feelings and actions.

I’ve noticed it rears its head when I feel unappreciated or misunderstood.

Resentment is something we often keep to ourselves, unaware of what we’re feeling, but can manifest itself in workplace behaviours such as venting or gossiping.

Expressing resentment can be healthy

Don’t get me wrong, venting can be a positive outlet for frustrations where people clash over ideas, have misunderstandings, or feel like decisions are being made without their input. Having a vent can actually be healthy in those moments and avert resentment building. It’s important we have a safe outlet for it.

However, like many things, venting needs to be conscious and moderated.

In my experience, venting becomes destructive when it evolves into gossip. There’s a subtle distinction between the two.

Venting often encompasses people expressing emotions, frustrations, or concerns about work-related issues in a constructive and non-judgmental way. Whereas gossip tends to involve discussing others in a harmful, unverified, or derogatory way. Unlike venting, gossip can be toxic as it damages relationships, trust, and morale.

Acknowledging emotional signals

The reason I make this distinction is because built-up resentment often fuels the transition from healthy venting to gossip. Over time, when frustrations or concerns about work-related issues aren’t heard or addressed in healthy ways, they build resentment. These are emotional signals that team dynamics have become dysfunctional and often a culture of blame starts to emerge.

I know from observing my own behaviour, that when unprocessed anger and resentment come up, I’m quick to point the finger. I’ve observed similar patterns in others – after all, we’re all human, right? What makes us feel resentful may differ, but we’re all inclined to feel it at one time or another.

This is why it’s so important that leaders have the emotional awareness to create safe environments for people to express their feelings in constructive and healthy ways. Otherwise resentment grows quietly in the background, damaging relationships and impacting motivation. Resentment leaves little room for individuals and teams to do their best work, as negative emotions overshadow any potential for creativity and innovation.

So, how can teams address and prevent this cycle?

  1. Psychological safety
    Team members need to feel empowered to express their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment. Leaders play a crucial role in setting the tone, leading by example and actively encouraging open discussion and feedback.
  2. Self-Awareness
    We advocate teams work together to deepen self-awareness. When we learn to observe ourselves more clearly and can recognise how our emotions influence our perspectives and reactions, we naturally develop a deeper understanding of others. With this awareness, we start to appreciate we’re all in a similar boat. It allows us to see others more clearly and express compassion as they navigate their own experiences.
  3. Vulnerability
    Building rapport in the workplace requires us to embrace vulnerability and express ourselves. This helps team members build trust over time, which is foundational for creating an environment that’s conducive to having more challenging conversations when they arise.
  4. Checking in
    Finally, creating opportunities for personal sharing is essential, yet often overlooked. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we should maintain a professional persona at work, keeping our personal lives and emotions separate. However, I believe that this separation stems from our lack of skill in expressing and supporting each other emotionally. This avoidance has led many of us to suppress parts of who we are in fear of judgement.

Unaddressed resentment clearly poses a threat to team performance. However by acknowledging the signals, that there are underlying issues, allowing for open communication, and cultivating more understanding, teams can mitigate its impact and create productive and ultimately more human places to work.

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