Does a relief affect setbacks?

Collective rumination: "Problem discussions" after setbacks can be harmful

Setbacks and adversities - for example a delayed software project, delivery problems in the grocery trade or internet problems at a major event - are part of everyday organizational life. If organization members speak openly about their negative feelings after such setbacks and reflect on possible causes, possibilities for improvement for the future can be derived from this. This means that setbacks are important opportunities for organizational learning through reflection. Accordingly, many articles on the subject of reflection were also published here on wissensdialoge.de.

If such “problem discussions” become too intense and negative, it can be very damaging for the organization. Together with knowledge worker Dr. Kristin Knipfer has been researching a phenomenon that we call “collective rumination” for a number of years. Our new article was published a few days ago (Knipfer & Kump, online first). Even if the term is not yet familiar, many of you are probably familiar with collective rumination from your own experience: A group of colleagues meets and complains loudly about the negative event, complains extensively about the 'incompetent responsible' or speculates intensely about what ' now terrible things are sure to happen '. Such rumination groups are not limited to formal work teams, but can be informal and cross-organizational (e.g. school yard, coffee maker). Often these groups are relatively stable over a longer period of time: Whenever something negative happens, the group quickly comes together again to vent the negative feelings and thoughts. Sharing negative emotions and discussing possible causes can be relieving at first and reduce negative emotions. At the same time, the people involved create a feeling of closeness and social support. Anyone who has ever been part of a 'rumbling group' knows that the feeling of being 'in the same boat' can be a strong social glue that bonds people together who otherwise would not have much in common (and who, e.g. after leaving the organization, otherwise not have much to say). That is, rumination together can bring short-term relief and trigger feelings of social support and cohesion in an emotionally stressful situation.

The negative spiral of collective rumination

Even if collective rumination brings short-term relief, such problematic discussions involve great risks. If emotions (e.g. frustration) are not shared with neutral listeners, but with people who have similar emotions, these are more mutually reinforcing than reducing. This effect is known in research as 'emotional spillover' - emotions are transmitted within a group. In addition, there is a strong connection between emotions and (cognitive) interpretations: In a negative mood, it is difficult to interpret a situation neutrally or to derive something positive from the situation. So members of rumining groups with strong negative emotions are more likely to share negative interpretations of the situation with others. In addition, in groups with a strong need for closeness and cohesion, hardly any deviating interpretations of the events are discussed (“It may have been completely different!”), But there is a tendency for existing - negative - interpretations of the event to be reinforced in such groups . These interactions between negative emotions and negative interpretations create a negative spiral that is becoming increasingly difficult to break in order to perhaps come up with possible solutions to the problem. This negative spiral prevents setbacks from being used as learning opportunities. At the same time, emotional and cognitive resources are used up in the often very intensive conversations - you usually leave such conversations not strengthened and motivated, but emotionally exhausted and drained.

Collective rumination damages organizational resilience

Because of this negative spiral of negative group emotions and shared negative interpretations of the situation, collective rumination has detrimental effects on and on organizational learning organizational resilience, in other words, the ability of the organization to become functional again after setbacks and possibly even to emerge stronger from the crisis. Negative situations are perceived by members of the organization not as a challenge, but as a threat. At the same time, collective rumination leads to feelings of helplessness and loss of control - organization members do not have the feeling that they can contribute to changing the situation. So instead of working to improve the situation and learn from it for the future, collective rumination leads deeper and deeper into the problem trance. Negative emotions not only inhibit the motivation to change something, but also the creativity that would be needed for possible new solutions.

Overall, collective rumination ties up organizational resources and does nothing to solve the problems that have arisen. Over time, it can even become chronic - employees then remain trapped in 'rumination mode' instead of solving problems. Managers should therefore try to prevent collective rumination in the organization. But organization members themselves should also have an interest in wasting as little energy as possible with collective rumination, because it does not solve problems but only intensifies stressful situations in the medium term. Here are some ways to counteract collective rumination.

Ways to Avoid Collective Rumination

Collective rumination is an attempt to cope with an emotionally stressful situation by talking about it. First (as yet unsystematic) empirical observations by Kristin Knipfer and myself suggest that members of the organization tend to collective rumination when they otherwise have little room for maneuver - i.e. in rather rigid, authoritarian structures with little control by employees. Correspondingly, co-determination and personal responsibility in organizations (e.g. agile structures) should prevent collective rumination. From leadership research we know that a transformational leadership style, in which employees are challenged and encouraged in an appreciative manner according to their strengths, promotes employee proactivity. When employees are recognized for suggesting solutions, collective rumination is a less interesting alternative.

But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't talk about your negative emotions after setbacks and in adverse situations. On the contrary: It is very important for organizational resilience that negative emotions are openly addressed and allowed to have space. Still, after expressing these emotions, the focus should be on what solutions would be needed and what could and should be done to solve the problem.

In order to interrupt the negative spiral of negative emotions and negative interpretations, complicated methods or instruments are often not required, but simple questioning techniques such as “Assuming the problem were solved, what would it look like?” Or “What would that have to happen?” Help the situation improves a little bit? ”. Such questions can also be useful if the collective rumination has already started and the problem discussions are to be steered in a solution-focused direction. Metacommunication can often also be useful: If you realize that you are currently rumbling together and caught in a negative spiral, it can help to address it and then, as an individual or group, consciously decide on a more constructive and learning-conducive communication style.

Source: Knipfer, K., & Kump, B. (equal contribution) (online first). Collective rumination: When problem talk ’impairs organizational resilience. Applied Psychology: An International Review. https://doi.org/10.1111/apps.12315