Workplace Wisdom

This Is What to Do with an Employee Who Cries

Here’s an example of how to use emotional data to help individuals work more effectively.

A frontline manager in a service company was known to have an emotional hair trigger. When Charisse didn’t care for the way a conversation was going, she would lower her voice, her lip would tremble and, in a matter of seconds, her eyes would well up.

Charisse’s previous bosses may not have owned up to their own reactions to her emotional displays, but most of them felt so frightened, shamed, or even demoralized by her tears, that they would end discussions with her as quickly as possible, whether or not they had made their points or resolved their issues.

Charisse didn’t always get what she wanted, but she was often able to avoid changes she didn’t want to make or assignments she didn’t want to take because so many of senior executives found it too challenging to stare her down or deflect her crying.

Although Charisse was highly regarded for her dedication and technical skill, she was constantly being passed around from one senior manager to another because her relationships were so difficult. The senior team felt a lot of loyalty to her for her long service and didn’t want to terminate her employment, but they also felt as if they were being held hostage to her passive-aggressive resistance.

Eventually, she reported to an executive who was willing to try something different. After observing one of her crying episodes, he decided not to avoid the issue. The next time Charisse got teary, he announced, “Charisse, I see that you feel strongly about this and you’re getting upset. I’m going to step out for a few minutes so you can recover yourself. When I get back we can talk about it some more.”

The exec put his box of tissues in front of her and left the room, closing the door behind him. When he came back a few minutes later, he knocked before coming in, and brought a cup of water for her and one for himself.

The Leading Question

“Okay, Charisse, what would you like me to know about this situation?”

To Charisse’s credit, and thanks to her strong work ethic and dedication, she had gotten herself together, and was now quite businesslike about sharing her opinions. Her manager kept the conversation as brief as possible, directing it toward the immediate topic without wandering into every possible side issue Charisse thought was a problem — and together they made some progress.

On the next occasion that Charisse seemed about to cry, the exec suggested that they take a quick break. He told her to walk around for 10 minutes, and return prepared to let him know what she thought was most important about the subject they were discussing. When they reconvened, she was perfectly professional once again.

Charisse never cried in the exec’s office again, although she continued to get teary with other executives who were either unwilling or not confident enough to use his combination of directness, kindness, and overt respect. The exec’s approach worked because his neutral tone and manner did not incite Charisse to become more emotional. He did not treat her as a pariah, but he didn’t try to delve into or fix her personal troubles either.

Instead, he gave Charisse space to calm down and focus on the work so that she could participate in a businesslike discussion. Instead of being rattled by her emotional displays, he used them as data, and from his analysis he gleaned that she had reservations or disagreements that she had not figured out how to express. He got her out of her emotional pattern, and his mix of encouragement and attention permitted her to think about what she cared enough about to express, as well as how she wanted to express it.

If you’d like some help collecting and analyzing emotional data, or developing the courage and canniness to use it well, please let me know.

Onward and upward,

LK

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2 thoughts on “This Is What to Do with an Employee Who Cries”

  1. Excellent advice Liz. People are often afraid of tears, their own and others. Your story about C. is spot on. Tears can be authentic and appear for many reasons, as in when someone is deeply moved – in a good way; or sad; or afraid, or peeling an onion. Tears can also manipulate, intentionally or not. The manger’s response contained C., and she was then able to contain herself. A box of tissues works well for a frequent crier. Empathy, not so much for those who frequently tear up to control a situation. I’m enjoying your posts and glad I subscribed.
    Cheers,
    ap

    • Thank you, Anne, for your generous comment. Sometimes closeness is the right medicine; sometimes a bit of distance is more effective. Part of leadership is being able to adjust to the actual circumstances, and not just your preferences about them.

 

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