Crying at Work

When Jack, a high-powered manager at an Interior BC pulp mill, suddenly broke down in a management team meeting one day, his peers were stunned. Jack was known in the company as a hard-driving, tough nut, known for his level of commitment and long hours. But the pressure was building on him. He was in charge of turning a business unit around that was consistently failing to make money. Repeatedly put down and mocked in meetings, Jack had reached his limit. To his own – and everyone else’s surprise, he wept.

Rapid changes in the workplace due to mergers and acquisitions, growing demands on pared-down staff and challenging economic conditions create emotionally charged work environments increasing the likelihood of upset.

At the same time, to remain competitive and retain workers businesses are shifting their leadership styles away from top down, fear-based management to more collaborative, respectful and inclusive models.

Furthermore, enhanced corporate awareness of the crucial role feelings play in the work place means leaders are expected to support staff in emotionally difficult times. However, stressful workplaces and more approachable leadership styles require sophisticated skills.

Until now, dealing with emotional issues in the workplace has generally meant coping with anger.

But other emotional reactions need attention. Our corporate clients tell us a crying employee creates real challenges that few say they are equipped to deal with. They may expect anger on the job, but not tears.

While women have had more social permission to cry openly outside work, tears have traditionally been taboo in the workplace for both sexes. However, this is changing with men and women being less likely to mask or hide tears when upset.

We are often asked by managers, “How do I deal with employees coming into my office or sitting at team meetings and starting to cry?”

Their responses to tears can include an urge to flee, anxiety, anger at the person crying, silence, abruptly ending meetings, offering a trite “cheer up”, platitudes, or denial: pretending nothing is happening. But they acknowledge these reactions are ineffective as they leave the worker feeling unsupported and awkward, and leaders flustered and confused.

To handle the situation effectively, leaders can ask themselves what crying represents to them. Do they see tears as a lack of control or weakness? Do they feel pressured to “fix” the person or situation? Do tears symbolize manipulation or a public humiliation? Once leaders discover their own attitudes towards tears, they can better deal with them.

Often, for example, if crying represents weakness leaders feel disgust and a loss of respect for the tearful worker. We don’t suggest leaders try to stop feeling disgusted, anxious, overwhelmed, upset or manipulated when confronted with a weeping staff person. Rather, we ask the leader to consider the situation from the worker’s perspective. This is called empathy.

Empathy is the ability to fully comprehend another’s experience and them communicate that understanding to him or her. It can be tough to master for many since it’s not only a communication skill but also a profound attitude and interpersonal style.

Managerial empathy can communicate respect and understanding. Leaders who understand how empathy works can be highly effective.

To be empathic with a crying subordinate, recognize what the person feels based on the situation and share your hunch with that person: “It looks like you feel embarrassed/regretful/frustrated/like a failure/discouraged about missing the deadline/ losing the client/making a costly mistake”.

We tell leaders that tears aren’t just about being sad. As the previous example illustrates, a person could feel any of the emotions listed in response to the circumstances.

An empathic statement can lead to grunts of acknowledgement or a torrent of information, thoughts and feelings from a tearful staffer. Remaining empathic throughout the conversation is important.

The tearful worker has a problem that needs to be resolved. Once leaders understand how workers are feeling about the situation and they communicate this, it is important that they help the person attend to the concerns that gave rise to the tears.

Crying at work signals that someone needs attention and an issue needs to be addressed. If the underlying reason for the tears or upset is beyond the leader’s scope or outside the workplace domain, such as family or marital conflict, bereavement or alcohol/drug abuse, the leader can refer the worker to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other support services.

While tears may create discomfort for managers, they can serve a useful purpose. Without Jack’s candor, the losses the company was experiencing would have continued with the organization blaming him and unconsciously undermining the struggling business unit. Instead, the management team responded empathetically and recognized its role in the business unit’s problems. To Jack’s surprise and relief, he was not ridiculed or fired. Instead, the team extended a helping hand and told him it took guts to tell them what was really going on. Within two months, the unit had turned around and the company made extraordinary quarterly gains. Jack was subsequently promoted.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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