Nora Jenkins Townson is founder of Bright + Early, a human resources advisory firm for startups and creative companies.
The workplace is generally considered to be a setting where we keep strong emotions in check, so when an employee breaks the taboo and cries at work, many managers are at a loss for how to handle it.
One manager I worked with had an Achilles heel when it came to crying. He couldn’t stand to see people upset, and would often walk back the negative feedback he’d given, or even reverse a tough decision. Although he thought he was being kind in the moment, he only ended up confusing his team and delaying conversations that needed to happen. Worse, in his kindness, he ended up losing people’s trust by not standing his ground. Having to give tough feedback or even let someone go is part of a manager’s job, and you might find yourself on the receiving end of anger, sadness, or an emotional outburst. Handling it with grace and professionalism is tricky, but it can be done.
First, if you know a meeting is going to be tough, take steps to prepare. Avoid all-glass “fishbowl” style rooms, and if you can’t, ensure you position yourself to face any transparent walls or doors. Having worked in offices where glass was the only option, I’ve also resorted to strategically blocking windows with anything movable – whiteboards, coat racks, you name it. You can also have tissues on hand, although a box of Kleenex placed dead centre on a meeting table may be a giveaway that bad news is coming.
If you see tears welling up, pause the conversation. In that moment, they can’t hear you. Try giving them a bit of space by offering to get them some water. Leaving the room for a minute gives them a private moment to compose themselves, which may be all they need to continue. If you return and the employee is still upset, you could try asking them simple questions such as what their plans are for the weekend or what they thought about a recent company event. Low-key, easy conversations can help calm the brain by taking people out of “fight or flight” mode.
Remember that while you can be an empathetic boss, it’s not your job to be their friend. Don’t backtrack on the statements you’ve made, and avoid the urge to pile on praise to ease the tension. Resist comforting them physically in any way, such as with a hug or pat, as this can be easily misconstrued. However, there’s no need to be a robot. Empathize with your team member (“I know this news may be tough to receive”) and validate their feelings. Don’t ask them to stop crying or say “it’s only work.”
If the conversation is focused on giving constructive feedback, it should centre around your investment in their growth and making a plan to improve, together. For some, finishing that conversation is helpful, as you’re leaving things on a more positive note. For others, it may not be possible to refocus and the conversation should continue at a later date. In that case, be sure to affirm that you’re there to help them grow and will work together with them on a plan to improve. There’s nothing worse than hearing bad news and being left to stew on it with no plan or conclusion.
If the conversation involves telling someone that they’ve lost their job, postponing the meeting may not be possible. In that case, you can offer a follow-up e-mail and/or phone call outlining the details of the exit package (if any) that the employee is entitled to, along with any next steps. They’d also have the opportunity to ask any questions at that time, after they’ve calmed and had a chance to consider the news. Offer them this option and ensure they’re given an easy way to get out of the office and head home, without running into co-workers.
De-escalating an emotional outburst is not a favourite task for any manager, but with some empathy and preparation, you can make the experience less painful for both of you.
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