Tears in the workplace

Questions from the Real World:  December, 2010

“One of my employees cries at the drop of a hat, and I don’t know what to do about it.  What would you suggest?”

~Anonymous, Redmond, WA

Jim’s response

I have a lot of experience making employees cry. That doesn’t necessarily make me a bad or difficult boss. I think I’ve seen tears many times because I haven’t been afraid to have the conversations with employees that have generated deep and difficult emotions.  So I’m not generally disturbed by tears because when they are present, important emotions are present as well. As a good leader, I always felt that these emotions were worth paying attention to and worth diving into rather than avoiding.

Jim Hessler, Path Forward Founder

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years about tears in the workplace.

  • Tears most often represent anger or frustration more than sadness.
  • The person crying is almost always embarrassed and wishes they weren’t making water.
  • The most professional response is to hand the cryer a box of tissue and continue the conversation as if the tears weren’t a reason to stop talking. The worst thing you can do is to make a big deal out of the tears, or to withdraw from the conversation due to your own discomfort. Handing them a tissue is a way to say “I see you, and I want to hang in there with you while we talk this out.”
  • The cryer is often just a person who has a lot invested in their work, or who is experiencing something in the workplace that violates trust or values. It’s very important to listen carefully when tears are present, and to ask a lot of questions to determine the source of the frustration.
  • Don’t necessarily accept the first indication or explanation for the emotion.  Dig a little.
  • Don’t see tears as weakness or hysteria. They are very simply a way that some people’s bodies react to strong emotions. DO NOT belittle or tease the person for their crying.

I guess in summary, I’d say move through the tears and get to the other side of the conversation. Too many managers, especially men, feel really uncomfortable and guilty when tears are present. Instead, this display of emotion can be a great opportunity to connect, and to build trust by showing respect and care for the cryer’s circumstances.

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Steve’s response

Well, it depends on whether you aspire to be The Evil Leader, The Clueless Leader, or the Wise Leader.

How about this?  “I’ll give you something to cry about!  You’re fired!”  That would be The Evil Leader – good guess.

The Clueless Leader, in disgust or embarrassment, pretends the tears don’t exist, ignores the employee whenever possible, and buys shares in Kimberly-Clark.

The Wise Leader finds a way to respect both the employee and the work of the team.

Steve Motenko, Path Forward Partner

This means neither indulging nor denying the emotions.  I’ve written in this blog space that emotions in the workplace should not be denied.  The Wise Leader addresses them head on – making no assumptions about their cause.

Our culture somehow has latched onto this schizophrenic notion that emotions should be left at home – despite the fact that emotions are what make life worth living.  Without joy, love, hope, or excitement, why get up in the morning?  And there is no such thing as a one-sided coin.

So don’t ignore the emotion, O Wise Leader.  First, do your best to discover the source of the feelings behind the tears.  It may of course be personal, professional or a combination.  It may be none of your business, but you’ve got to ask.  The Wise Leader is respectful of, connected to, and compassionate toward her employees.  You have to have a conversation about what the employee is experiencing.  When you see someone in pain, the ethical path forward is to offer help.

AND … you’re not a therapist or their mom.  It’s not your job to resolve their problems.  It’s not your job to spend hours of time in dialogue around anything not directly work-related.  And it’s not your job to allow an employee’s emotions to overcome their work or the workplace.  So The Wise Leader uses discernment, following a process sorta like this:

  • Have the courage to overcome your embarrassment or discomfort around the tears.
  • Ask what’s going on and what you can do to help.
  • If the answer gives you a way to help that doesn’t take you out of integrity with the needs of the team, the work, or the workplace, offer it.
  • Once you’ve offered what support you can offer – and/or if crying at work is a consistent behavior – convey the expectation that emotions can’t be allowed to hinder their work in the long run.
    • Maybe they need to take a personal or sick day.
    • Maybe they need to see a counselor or doctor.
    • Maybe they need to process, with an appropriate other in the organization, whatever it is they’re going through.
    • Or maybe crying is just … part of their style, and they can work through it, including participating fully in workplace conversations and meetings — with a tissue box at their side.
  • If the employee meets job expectations consistently, and just wears their heart on their sleeve, don’t let your or anyone else’s discomfort project onto the employee as blame or judgment.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

One thought on "Tears in the workplace"

  1. Judy Feldman says:

    Thank you! As someone who’s been on both sides of the tissues, your responses were compassionate, insightful, and healthy. Of course, just my opinion 🙂 BTW, I love your blog!

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