Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Manager’s Guide to Crying at Work

Back in 1968, Ed Muskie, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, may have lost the election when he allegedly broke down in tears in front of reporters while defending attacks made on his wife.
Fast forward to 2012: President Obama cried at a meeting with his campaign staff the day after he won the election. Speaker of the house John Boehner cried on 60 minutes, and is a notorious crier.
Reactions to our political leaders, sports heroes, and other role models crying are mixed. Some say it’s embarrassing and a sign of emotional instability or weakness. Others say it’s a good thing, as it shows passion, sensitivity, and authenticity, all important characteristics for today’s leader. And still others accuse some criers of using “crocodile tears” as a way to manipulate or as a form of emotional blackmail.
No matter where you stand on the issue of crying, as a manager, if you have not already, you’ll be faced with a crying employee. The old rule of thumb was “there’s no place for emotions in the workplace (or baseball), it’s all about the facts, just the facts”. Managers, when faced with a crying employee, would either run away in fear or do something stupid or insensitive, or both.

So what’s a manager to do when faced with a crying employee? While there are no clear, consensus management rules to fall back to, there are a few things that may be helpful to know:

1. It’s not about character, it’s about science.
According to Dr. William Frey, the director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minn., and author of the 1985 book Crying: The Mystery of Tears, adult women cry four times as often as men. But it has less to do with weakness or sensitivity, and more to do with biology.
Men’s and women’s tear ducts are anatomically different. Women also have higher levels of the hormone prolactin, which promotes lactation and has been associated with an increased tendency to cry. Prolactin levels also rise when a woman is menstruating, pregnant, or has recently given birth. Similarly, testosterone—of which men have more—has been associated with a decreased tendency to tear up. Different people have different prolactin and testosterone levels, so some people are more apt to cry than others.
So, as managers, we need to let go of stereotypes and perceptions about crying and recognize it for what it is – a chemical reaction. 

2. Keep a box of tissue on your desk at all times.
While this may seem obvious to some, I’ve sometimes walked around offices and noticed that more than half of the manager’s desks lack this management essential. Who knows, maybe they’re hiding them in a desk drawer, only to be pulled out when needed?

In either case, when faced with tears, gently pushing a tissue box is a way to break the tension, show some sensitivity, and provide a practical solution to running noses and mascara.
3. Offer a brief “time out” to allow the employee to regain their composure.
Although crying at work may be more common, acceptable, and biological, it’s still often embarrassing and uncomfortable for the employee. Asking “are you OK?”, or pointing it out, may just make it worse. The employee will most likely appreciate the opportunity to regroup and resume the discussion in an hour or so. I even read about a manager that took a break from her own office to use the restroom, giving the employee a chance to compose herself. When she returned, they were able to continue the discussion without a word said about the crying.

4. Avoid the "fish bowl".
If you know the discussion will be sensitive and the employee is prone to crying, have the discussion in a private place. If you don’t have an office or if your office has glass windows, then book a conference room. It’s embarrassing enough having to cry in front of your manager, and even more so having all of your co-workers watching it.
5. Don’t let crying be an excuse for avoiding the issue or lowering your standard.

Yes, a “time-out” is a good idea, but it should not be a permanent time-out. Set a follow-up time and get pick up right where you left off.

6. Be aware that sudden and frequent crying may be a symptom of bigger problems, either at work or home.
I’d certainly be concerned if lots of my employees were crying at work – that just might be a sign that there’s a problem with the work environment, don’t you think? Also, stuff happens in our lives, and it’s impossible to separate our personal lives from our work lives. While it’s not part of your job description to solve your employee’s personal problems, being understanding and supportive is the right thing to do as a leader.
7. Provide coaching if the crying is “inappropriate”. 

Workplace experts will disagree on this, but as normal and acceptable as crying may be in today’s workplace, there are STILL situations where it could have an impact on your performance or be career limiting. Crying as a reaction to feedback, losing your composure in a boardroom, or an inability to deal with conflict are all situations that can’t be overlooked. Your employee may need your help in pointing this out, as well coming up with more acceptable ways to cope with their emotions.

How about you? Where do you stand on the issue of crying at work? What advice would you offer managers?


ukfolkie said...

Good sensible advice. As a manager, who is also a human, I sometimes want to cry whilst at work (not necessarily because of work) but I don't. My advice is take that time out. Find a reason to go out of the office, and let yourself breathe deeply and regain the composure you need.

Karen Catlin said...

Another idea: Offer a glass of water! The SVP of Human Resources at a company I once worked for told me that it's difficult to cry while drinking water. If you can sip water just as you feel your eyes starting to well up, you'll keep yourself from crying. Nifty!

Margaret Feinberg said...

never knew that about #1! fascinating

Dan McCarthy said...

Carolyn -
Thanks, good advice! A nice walk, meditation, deep breathing, or a stiff drink (kidding!).

Karen -
Thanks, good idea! Add a case of bottled water to the manager's essential toolkit. Good for hiccups too. (-:

Margaret -
Me neither!

Mary Jo Asmus said...


What a great topic! I have been the recipient of tears all of my working life. As an executive coach, it isn't at all uncommon to have a client cry in a session - male or female - they are often dealing with very emotional issues.

I think your last point is spot on. Mostly, they just want to be listened to in those moments. Interestingly, I learned this by asking them, "How can I help?" when they are distraut. 99% will say, "just listen".

P.S. I find it sad that people feel they have to hold back tears at work. It's a very human reaction to sad things that happen.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jo -
Agree, we should be able to express our our emotions at work when sad (or touching) things happen, which is different than losing composure under pressure or conflict.

Hussain said...

Unique topic indeed!
What about crying virtually? How would a true leader would listen in that situation? It might be a silly idea, but I assure you it is happening..

Dan McCarthy said...

Hmmmm, good question, it's hard to offer a Kleenex over the phone, isn't it? But the other tips would still apply.