How to Manage an Employee Who Cries Easily

March 23, 2018 Liz Kislik

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Hayon Thapaliya for HBR

Most managers feel uncomfortable when employees cry during business conversations. Many of us may recall a time we’ve cried at work, but for some people it’s not a rare occurrence. Some individuals seem to react excessively to disappointment or challenge, with repeated bouts of apparent sadness or fear accompanied by tears, shaking, or reddening. If you manage someone who tears up easily, you may find yourself leaving important topics or issues unaddressed to avoid upsetting them.

Some employees are quick to cry because they lack strong self-management skills; they may be embarrassed by their own emotionalism, and grateful for any advice you can offer on keeping a more even keel. Some cry as a form of deflection or manipulation; I’ve worked with a handful of people whose frequent crying served as a first line of defense against criticism. Of course, they may also be handling a tough situation in their personal lives — from illness to difficult family situations. And perhaps the most positive reason for crying occurs when your employee trusts that you have the kind of boss-subordinate relationship where tears are nothing to hide or be ashamed of.

You can’t know what’s going on inside your employee’s head, or whether they cry because they trust you, are trying to manipulate you, or happen to be overwhelmed by personal issues outside of work. If the issue is personal, you may want to refer them to your HR department or your company EAP, so they can get some additional support. Regardless of the cause of their distress, though, you’ll need to find a way to work around — or through — their tears. These six steps will help you and your subordinate keep a humane and professional focus on the work that still needs to get done.

Don’t overreact to the stimulus of crying. Mentally characterize the tears as the equivalent of someone else’s furrowed brow or bit lip. The fact that a crier is crying again doesn’t mean they’re an emotional wreck who’s having a breakdown; it’s just the way their body reacts to pressure. Remind yourself that you’re in charge of the situation. Face the employee and keep your body language open and your language neutral; show that you’re paying close attention but not becoming distressed yourself. This is a time not to be empathetic and try to experience what they’re feeling, but to be compassionate and take action because you see that they’re having a hard time.

Note the trigger. It’s useful to identify the patterns for discussion, and to be aware of what gets the excessive reaction started. Is it an event, a belief about someone else’s intentions, or a build-up of frustrations that should have been vented sooner? Rather than asking why the employee is reacting, which can encourage a deep exploration of aggravations and hurt feelings, try to name the concrete, proximate cause: Say something like, “I can see that something just upset you. Was it….?” You want to start out by naming it without delving into it.

Require a brief recovery period instead of calling off the meeting or pretending nothing’s happening. With someone who cries rarely, you might want to reschedule the meeting. But with someone who cries a lot, that may not be the answer — there’s no inherent reason that your next discussion will go significantly better and no one has time to reschedule meetings anyway. So you might as well help this one along, show that you can protect the employee’s dignity, and take control of the situation simultaneously. Say, “Let’s take a quick break so you can calm yourself and then we’ll figure things out.” The employee may want to take a short walk or get a coffee, or if the meeting is in your office, you can leave for a few minutes, or even do some other work. After a short interval, say, “Okay, let’s resume our conversation.”

Probe for the employee’s immediate purpose or need. It’s important to avoid questions that invite a litany of woes or stories about problems that occurred three years ago. So skip leading questions like “What’s going on?” in favor of “What are the specifics I need to know about this situation?” or “What’s the most important thing you’re trying to accomplish right now?” Keep bringing the employee to the point: the data and considerations to move forward with the business problem.

Don’t commiserate, pity, or try to fix the situation for them. It’s okay to acknowledge, “I’m sorry that upset you,” but minimize any sense of drama. Resist getting upset yourself, even if you’re frustrated; it will only encourage even more emotion. Look away a bit, as if they happened to have a bloody nose and will take a few minutes to clean up but don’t need an ambulance.

Announce a conclusion. This is a two-fold step: The first is to declare what needs to be done to progress through the problem and ensure that you’ve each committed to your follow-up actions; the second is to bring the discussion to a close so there’s no wallowing in emotion. “So here’s what we’re going to do — you’ll handle X, and I’ll arrange a call with Y. Thank you for filling me in. We can check in again on Tuesday.”

It’s natural to want to avoid the discomfort of confronting a crying subordinate. But if you’re calm and focused, you can help the employee move past their emotions and come back to the necessary work at hand. Over time, they’ll become more proficient at curbing their own reactivity. And you’ll be happier to meet with them.

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