How should I react to someone who cries in a meeting where I'm giving potentially difficult feedback? I come from the corporate consulting world where crying would be a huge sign of weakness, but now I'm in the nonprofit sector, where (at least in my organization) crying seems to be considerably less of a red flag to most people.
I think crying is a mostly acceptable sign of humanity, and as long as someone acknowledges (during or after) that it's a less than ideal reaction, I just let it go. But I have to admit that it bugs me as an obviously counterproductive reaction. Is crying really okay in the workplace?
While it’s true that crying — and other emotional reactions like getting snippy and being defensive — can make it harder to give someone feedback, crying isn’t quite the same as the other two. When someone cries in response to feedback, it’s not usually about disputing the legitimacy of your perspective, and it’s at least somewhat of an involuntary physical response.
Whether or not crying at work is unprofessional depends on who you ask and where you’re working. Some people will tell you it’s unacceptable to be seen crying at work over anything, let alone during a feedback conversation with your manager. But others are more accepting, even to the point of seeing it as no big deal.
Company culture plays a big role here, as you’re seeing. Different industries and organizations have varying ideas about what emotions are office-appropriate. Personally, I figure that — given how much time we spend at work and how much stress people are sometimes under — it’s no big deal if someone occasionally gets teary, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of managers being able to give (and employees being able to hear) feedback.
But if it happens in front of you, what do you do?
Most employees who cry at work are embarrassed by it and will be grateful if you don’t make a big production out of it. If the employee is just a little misty-eyed, the kindest course is often to simply continue the conversation, rather than draw attention to the tears. But if that’s not feasible, try saying something like, “I can see you’re upset. Would you like me to give you a few minutes?”
One manager I know of would, when an employee began to cry in her office, blow her nose (thus ensuring the employee saw where the tissues were) and then excuse herself to go to the bathroom (thus giving the employee time to compose herself, without the manager drawing attention to the crying). You could accomplish something similar by saying, “I think we could both use some coffee” and excusing yourself to get some, giving the employee a few minutes alone to regain control of her emotions.
From there, assuming that you’re not regularly facing tears from this particular employee, I’d write it off as a normal human reaction. However, if it’s a regular occurrence, it can cause problems: It will make it harder to have the types of conversations that managers and employees need to have on a regular basis, and some managers will hesitate to give feedback at all when they’re worried that it will lead to tears. In that case, you might ask the employee about the best way both of you can manage around it.
For instance: “I can see that these conversations are hard for you. Given that feedback conversations are an important part of our work here, is there anything I can do differently to make this easier on you?” You might find out that the employee would appreciate a brief heads-up about the issues in an email before you meet, or that there’s some other solution that would allow her to keep her composure more easily.
Whatever you do, don’t let tears stop you from giving feedback or cause you to give less of it. That would be an enormous disservice to them and to the work you need them to do.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on careers, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.