The most authentic space in the workplace is the bathroom. It’s the place where employees go to find momentary solace, to break down, to text their significant other, to face themselves in the mirror. Office bathrooms (or their pandemic alternative, the private Slack channel) are where workers vent about toxic corporate culture. They’re where schemes for solidarity are assembled. Office bathrooms are where people go to bare their physiological and emotional realities away from company judgment.
Outside of the office bathroom, buzzwords like “authenticity” and “vulnerability” invite an emotionally stuck American corporate culture to change its ways. In fact, more than a few consultants have built careers on helping employees and leaders live these attributes. The goal of this work is to build honest communication between managers and direct reports. Theoretically, this is great. We’ll be able to bring our fullest selves to work!
However, in most company cultures, employees find very little incentive to be vulnerable or authentic with leaders. Authenticity can only emerge when an individual has agency and power in the space where they’re sharing their truth. This is reinforced by the popularity and influence of peer-coaching relationships in the workplace. Peer spaces offer an opportunity to share and listen in an environment built on trust and support.
In a private conversation with a peer, there’s a sense that workers share similar, if not equal, amounts of control of the venue and the outcomes. In the presence of a senior figure, the power and agency to make life-affecting decisions are monopolized by the boss.
So where do employees actually feel this agency? When can they be themselves? Often, it’s when the boss is not around.
Need proof? Messaging tools have ballooned in use during the pandemic—with post-pandemic interactions among close team members increasing by 40%. If you can’t huddle with your work BFF in the bathroom, then you might as well do it on a Slack Huddle. In an increasingly distributed working environment, teammates have sought out ways to connect and vent. On its own, venting can be cathartic, but it does not create change. How can workers use these spaces of authenticity to create the change they need to thrive in the workplace?
Turning venting into action
Recently, a close teammate shared how she’s been feeling unheard in meetings with leadership. She is often talked over, dismissed, or excluded from input on projects. While listening to her share her frustrations, I found that I had been bottling up those same feelings. The conversation didn’t just act as a space for my colleague to vent, it was an opportunity for me to validate and affirm her experiences in our shared work environment. The dismissal and condescension from coworkers weren’t just in her head. It was real, I had seen it, and experienced it too.
It was only in this private conversation with a peer that we both felt comfortable enough to open up about what was truly ailing us in our work. I also found what had been the source of my own disengagement in meetings. That said, it wasn’t like either of us was going to lament the treatment by our senior leaders in front of a whole Zoom room of managers. We needed the privacy and feeling of safety to vent, but we also needed a way to address this needling pain point in our work life.
Leaders must not be afraid of spaces where employees can vent to their peers. Instead, they should embrace conversations where vented dissatisfaction is translated into collective action.
In some workplaces, this can be a weekly forum for colleagues to share and troubleshoot the things that have been negatively affecting their work. At Trello, its weekly team meetings include a 5- or 10-minute allotment for Weekly Woes—where team members have the floor to vent and share about any challenges they’re currently facing, personal or professional. This is a way to surface underlying issues affecting peers without putting the onus on employees to carve out the time with their manager. If an employee expresses a need and can team up with another person who has the same issue to address, that can help build solidarity on a team as coworkers find they are not alone. It might even encourage more teammates to surface issues they know are shared by others.
For issues that an employee might not feel comfortable sharing in front of a group of peers, it’s imperative that managers actively seek out feedback and input from direct reports. Whether it’s through one-on-ones, during office hours, or through feedback surveys, employees need a venue to express their concerns—and most importantly, they need to know that their concerns are being heard and addressed.
As for me and my teammate, we took time to talk through the issue and developed a plan to talk to our manager about the treatment we were suffering in team meetings. Ultimately, our “bathroom huddle” may become the source of a meaningful cultural change in our organization. At the very least, we found a space at work where we can be authentic—no guidebooks, workshops, or how-to articles needed.
Amira Selim is a color, material, and finish (CMF) designer at HP.