The stress of the workplace can bring out plenty of feelings in all of us. As an executive coach, I see joy, sadness, frustration, and disappointment on a daily basis. But while we may experience an array of emotions at work, there’s a general consensus that we shouldn’t see anyone reduced to tears, hopelessness, or defeat on the job. If you as a manager have caused an employee to cry, your primary objective is not to let it happen again. How?
First, you need to understand exactly what happened. What, specifically, caused the crying? Tears can signal sadness, or, quite frequently, they can be a cover for other feelings: frustration, anger, a sense of powerlessness, anxiety, poor self-esteem, or negative self-image. As a trained psychologist, I know that we have to consider the particular cognitive and emotional makeup of the person who’s in tears, as well as the situation that the person is in. What did that person reallywant to do: slug her insensitive boss, or walk away from a demeaning job? Those alternatives are rarely an option, so sometimes the only recourse may be to shed tears.
I’ve generally seen three primary circumstances that reduce people to tears:
The formidable manager:
It’s a good thing to be a manager who’s seen as extremely smart and highly accomplished. But remember that you may be viewed by your reports as someone who sets such a high bar that they’re quaking in their boots and sorely afraid of the consequences of not measuring up to your high standards at every turn. If that’s the case, then the simple critique you thought you’d delivered in the spirit of helping your report to develop her or his skills could have been translated as “You’ll never measure up,” resulting in a crying spell based on a sense of hopelessness. Other types of formidable managers might use fear to motivate employees, or might snap at subordinates in stressful situations, rather than using more skillful language, such as: “Hey, we’ve got a tough row to hoe here. Thanks for your effort; we all have to keep at it, but it will be worth it. Let’s stretch to reach this goal.”
Organizational culture and differences:
Like families, social groups, and geographical regions, each workplace has its own culture and expectations of behavior. In some organizations, an interaction with some edge to it is seen as the norm, and people rarely take offense. In another company, the expectation is that a critique or correction will be voiced with sensitivity and compassion. If you’re the new manager in an organization, or you’re managing a new employee, you may have erred on the side of directness when your team member was expecting more caution. I’ve often had to help a manager see that his or her definition of “calling it as I see it” equates to an employee’s sense of being unfairly attacked.
Personal life intersecting with professional life:
How many office conversations begin and end with:
“Good morning! How are you?”
“Fine; how about you?”
“Doing well, thanks.”
People don’t always reveal at work the challenges they’re facing in their lives outside of work. The person who started to cry when you mentioned that the quarterly results weren’t met may not have been hopelessly despondent about the fiscal outcome, but may have felt that everything in his or her life was currently going awry. Maybe your employee was given a diagnosis of a serious illness, experienced the loss of a close friend or family member, or was trying to absorb some other recent personal setback. Your simple observation or comment may have felt like the straw that broke the camel’s back.
YOU AND YOUR TEAM
Feelings matter at work
Regardless of the source of your employee’s tears, it’s important to try to understand what happened. Here’s how:
First, listen. Find a safe but private place, such as an unoccupied conference room or office where you can speak quietly. Ask him what happened and listen as he tells you. It may take a while for him to formulate just what he’s feeling, so be patient. I’ve heard from formerly tearful employees that their manager’s willingness just to listen to their side restored the trust in their relationship and brought everyone to a more productive level of understanding.
Be empathic and willing to learn. Even if you don’t fully understand why your report or colleague would be upset over whatever it was that triggered the tears, your openness to consider the other’s feelings will help you work with that person more effectively and may help you to become a better manager in general.
Offer an apology if it’s appropriate. If your behavior was sub-par or could be viewed that way, let it be known that you regret your words or actions and the impact they had on your employee. If it turns out that the tears were primarily due to a personal struggle outside of work, acknowledge that pain and extend your best wishes.
Help them save face. Female or male, few people want to be seen blinking back tears at work. It can be humiliating. You can’t take back the incident that’s already occurred, but you can pledge not to be the cause of someone else’s tears ever again. If the incident was viewed by others, and your employee agrees to it, you can make a public apology and request that your employees let you know if you’re ever again keeping people on edge this way.
Take note if this employee is particularly sensitive by nature or going through a difficult time. Then, be specific about your objectives for this particular person and strive to catch her doing something right. That effort is always a key element in keeping people motivated, instead of hopeless, through challenging times.
Look at the big picture. You’ve talked over the situation with your employee, you’ve apologized if you contributed to that person’s distress, and addressed how you can change your own behavior. You’ve also considered the stressors that your employees may experience. If you realize that you need to listen more, create new means to express your faith in your employees, or change the organizational culture, start working on it. Demonstrate to your team that this is a workplace where no one needs to shed tears, ever.