At this event, the role-playing exercise required the participant to address an employee who was having serious problems at work and home. During the exercise, I pretended to be the employee and did my best acting job of crying as I told my story to the “manager.” What happened next surprised me.
When I started “crying,” the participant immediately backed off from the tough conversation and told the “employee” that everything was fine. He reversed course from what he had intended to tell the employee and was completely shaken by my “tears.” I learned, unfortunately, this is a common reaction for many managers. They can navigate all kinds of issues – until there are tears.
What’s really going on?
Here’s the problem – you aren’t helping your employee (or yourself, or your firm, or your clients) when you allow tears to change your message. If you stop when there are tears, you are sending a strong message to the employee that you are not serious. You are telling them you were wrong, that they are a victim of your unfair comments.
To help you keep your message on track, it is important to understand what causes people to cry. Tears can be a reaction to fear, disappointment, pain, anger, or even just stress. As a manager, you need to remember that these conversations are often more difficult for your employee than they are for you. It is natural that people will sometimes cry when they are under stress.
“If you dilute or conceal the full message, you must take responsibility if they then fail.”
If you dilute or conceal the full message, you must take responsibility if they then fail. As a manager, it is your mission to help your employee achieve their highest potential. Unless the meeting is to terminate, your message should always be designed to help them succeed. Less than honest feedback will block their success.
What do I do?
OK, but what do you do when someone cries? First, remind yourself that crying is simply a physical reaction to a stressful situation. It means they care and you owe it to them to provide a meaningful message that will help them succeed.
Second, hand them a box of tissues. Seriously, if you manage people you need to have them in your office always. By handing them tissues, you are letting them know that you simply see this as a human reaction and you are moving on.
If they apologize for crying, just say, “No problem. I can see that you care about this situation.” You can also say, “I’m sorry this is stressful for you, but I want to be honest so that you can be successful.” If they are so emotional that you think they aren’t listening, give them a few minutes to compose themselves. Just wait, don’t try to fill in the silence by consoling them. Don’t embarrass them by treating them like a child.
Finally, when you have their attention again, continue with your message! The kindest thing you can do for an employee is to tell them what they need to hear. Of course, there are many ways to deliver a message. You should always plan how to best communicate what to say. However, once you have a plan, you need to go through with it.
If they cry, it’s even more important to make the experience one that will help them avoid similar – or worse – conversations in the future. Once you get through it, you will both feel better.