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