(By Amy Gallo)
“Sometimes even when the reasons for the tears seem clear, they might not be. An employee might start sobbing in a review conversation but she’s really upset about her mother being sick. Once they’ve let the emotions out, “it’s your job to tease out what’s going on and how you can help,” Kreamer says. Managers should be able to gently ask questions that get at the underlying issue. Try saying, “What’s going on?” or “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” “You don’t need to be a therapist,” says Sanchez-Burks, “you just need to be available.” At the same time, respect your employees’ boundaries. She might not want to confide in the boss. Don’t take it personally. Instead, try to monitor the situation from a distance, or ask another employee who’s close with her to check in and make sure she’s all right.“
There are lots of reasons someone might be upset at work, from the personal (divorce, illness, kid troubles) to the professional (a failed project, bad review, or nasty colleague). Given how much time we spend in the office, it seems inevitable that people will occasionally get emotional. But how should you handle tears as a manager? What should you do with a distraught employee?
What the Experts Say
Many managers are uncomfortable with emotional behavior — whether it’s positive or negative. “People think to be professional, you need to ignore your emotions and those of the people around you,” says Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, an associate professor of management and organization at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, whose research shows this to be the norm in most American workplaces. But few people can live up to this standard. “We don’t leave our humanity at the office door,” he says. Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace, agrees: “You can’t decide what to wear to work, let alone close a deal, or make an important presentation without emotions being involved,” she says. Crying is a biological reaction to stress, “an emotional reset valve” (and one that is more easily triggered in women for physiological reasons). So instead of ignoring your employees’ tears, respond to them. Here are some practical steps.
Act like yourself
When you’re faced with a weeping employee, your first instinct should be to help. Sanchez-Burks advises approaching the person as if he’s someone in your social network outside of work. “We already have the script and the capability, but we need to get over how to do it inside the office,” he says. What specifically you do — offer a tissue, ask what’s wrong, give a hug, suggest a walk outside — will depend on your relationship, how long you’ve worked together, and the office culture. The key is to engage, and let the tears flow, instead of ignoring or judging the person.
Figure out what’s really going on
Sometimes even when the reasons for the tears seem clear, they might not be. An employee might start sobbing in a review conversation but she’s really upset about her mother being sick. Once they’ve let the emotions out, “it’s your job to tease out what’s going on and how you can help,” Kreamer says. Managers should be able to gently ask questions that get at the underlying issue. Try saying, “What’s going on?” or “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” “You don’t need to be a therapist,” says Sanchez-Burks, “you just need to be available.” At the same time, respect your employees’ boundaries. She might not want to confide in the boss. Don’t take it personally. Instead, try to monitor the situation from a distance, or ask another employee who’s close with her to check in and make sure she’s all right.
Keep it simple
If you’ve identified that the problem is a personal one, stick to simple and comforting responses — “I’m sorry” or “This is a horrible situation.” Don’t tell him that everything’s going to be OK or imply that he should buck up. And resist the temptation to tell a story of your own. “The last thing in the world an anxious employee wants to hear about is how you handled your own or someone else’s illness,” says Kreamer.
Focus on work-related concerns
“The most helpful thing you can do is listen and try to help them solve their work-related concerns,” Kreamer advises. If you discover that an office issue prompted the crying, work with the employee, and colleagues if necessary, to address it. If it’s a personal problem, you can also help her make a plan. You might say something like, “This is rough, let me know what would be most helpful to you and we’ll see if we can make that happen.” Try to get specific. Can you temporarily reduce her workload? Can you set up regular check-ins to monitor the situation and how it’s affecting her work? “In the most extreme case, it could be necessary to suggest a leave of absence and bring in temporary help,” Kreamer says.
Don’t play psychiatrist
There may be some situations that you’re not equipped to handle: mental illness or substance abuse, for example. In these cases, or in any situation that you’re not comfortable addressing, refer the person to HR or an employee assistance program (EAP). This shouldn’t be your first reaction when you see tears, but you also shouldn’t take on something out of your comfort zone.
Don’t wait for a crisis to tune into people’s emotions. Provide opportunities for employees to talk with you about what’s going on in their lives. You might set aside a few minutes at the end of one-on-one meetings. Kreamer suggests asking questions like, “Are there any issues on the horizon that might affect you? Let’s put them on the table and see what we can do about them.” This gives employees permission to open up. “Often employees are frightened to ask for help because they feel they’re risking their value to the organization,” she says. Sanchez-Burks’ research shows that being attuned to your employees not only makes you more human; it makes you a better leader, too.
Principles to Remember
Act like you would in a social situation — be comforting and solicitous
Keep your responses simple and focused on the employee
Make a specific plan for handling the situation going forward
Judge people who bring emotions to work — it’s not unprofessional to cry, it’s human
Try to get your employee to stop crying — offer a tissue and let the tears flow
Push a person to tell you what’s happening if he doesn’t want to talk about it
Case study #1: Allow space for grief
Jessica Zinner* was the associate director of a small nonprofit in Boston when her 24-year-old colleague, Ellen*, became gravely ill. After three months in the hospital, Ellen passed away. “She was the keystone of our organization and we were a tight-knit group,” Jessica says. There were 15 people who worked in the organization. Ellen died right before the office closed for the Christmas holiday, and over the break, Jessica worked with the executive director to come up with a plan for the staff’s return. “We knew this was going to be devastating. We had a lot of conversations about what the right expectations were, how we should talk about the situation, and how we should support people.”
When people came back after the New Year, the atmosphere was “dark.” “Every single person — men and women — at some point came into my office sat in my chair and cried,” Jessica says. But she never tried to stem the tears. “People have to fall apart before they can pull themselves back together. Unless you give people space to grieve, it will leak out in other ways.”
She met with staff members individually to help them process their grief and to make a work plan going forward. “People were wondering what to do: ‘Do we work or not work?'” she says. Jessica and the executive director told people to do what they could. “We wanted people to come in and do their best.” In addition to the individual meetings, they also got together every morning to check in as a group. This gave people room to express what they were going through and to connect with others. They did this for two weeks and then moved the meeting to once a month. “Eventually it morphed into a general meeting where we checked in about things outside of work, not just about Ellen,” she says.
Jessica acknowledges that the organization’s work suffered. But she accepts that as part of the process. “It took the better part of a year to recover but we became a much more emotionally engaged organization,” she says.
*not their real names
Case study #2: Bring in help when you need it
Steve Easley, the owner of Breakrock Consultants, is familiar with employee tears. “Over my career I have had employees that have cried in my office for everything from a bad evaluation to a personal tragedy,” he says. A few years back, he was working on a contract to provide accounting services to a government agency. His team of ten accountants worked in a single large room so that everyone was within earshot of each other. One day, one of his employees, Jane*, came into work upset. “I could tell she was choking back tears,” he says. When he asked if she was OK, she said yes but didn’t look him in the eye. He knew something was going on so he asked another employee — a young woman that he suspected Jane might open up to — if she would check in with her. This woman found out that Jane’s son was in legal trouble. Steve asked the young woman to convey to Jane that she could take time off to deal with the situation but Jane refused. She continued to come in visibly upset. “I was beside myself,” he says, “For the first time ever her work began to suffer and I knew this added to her emotions.”
He called a meeting with the team (without Jane there) and explained that she was having a hard time, without divulging what he knew. He subtly asked that they give her space and empathy. Soon after, he left for a lunch meeting. While he was gone (he later found out), Jane broke down and explained the situation to her colleagues, who consoled her. “When I returned the whole mood of the room had changed,” he recalls. “Jane looked less distraught and the team seemed happy and productive.” Steve believes the crying was a good thing — one employee got the support she needed and the rest of the team got a boost from helping her.
(Source: Harvard Business Review)
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