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?