How to Deal with Crying in the Office

September 28, 2009


Here is a short video from about crying in the office.  The main point the video makes is try not to cry at work, and if something happens and you do start crying, get your composure back as quickly as possible.  I can’t disagree with any of that.

But one of the first things the expert in this video says is “One must always remember that work is about facts, it’s not about feelings.”  I strongly disagree.

Like it or not, we are emotional beings.  Effective leaders don’t dismiss that fact, they embrace it.

Two of the most powerful drivers of employee performance are job satisfaction and organizational commitment.  Satisfied and committed employees are more likely to outperform those that hate their job, your organization, and you.  These attitudes are very affect laden, and it’s the affective component of the attitude that makes them so powerful.

As a leader, the way to deal with a crying employee is to treat the crying as a symptom and not a problem.  Crying is not a sign of weakness; it is a natural way that our bodies deal with stress by releasing emotions.  If there is something in the work environment that caused such an extreme emotional reaction, it needs to be identified and dealt with. 

Be thankful if you witness the crying at work.  If employees are chronically crying at home due to work related stress, you might miss these signs of burnout.  You better care about that, because employee burnout is a bottom line issue.

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  1. Bret,

    Thank you for being an advocate of honoring emotions at work. When a leader doesn’t honor and respect the body and soul (as well as the mind) of followers, it is like denying a whole piece of human existence. The fact is that we swim in emotions daily. Leaders must learn to recognize, acknowledge and move forward knowing how to work within that context.

    The secret may be for leaders to learn how to have conversations that may be uncomfortable for them to acknowledge the emotions in the workplace.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Great points, Mary Jo! Its easier to give good advice on how to deal with personality and attitudes at work, but we also have to get better with how we deal with emotions. Thanks!! Bret

  2. Art Petty says:

    Bret, this is a topic that comes up frequently in my workshops. Not surprisingly, many people are uncomfortable dealing with crying and struggle for a good approach.

    While not certain if it was optimal, the approach that I developed was to keep a box of tissues in my desk drawer and without pre-occupying on the crying, provide the individual with the tissues and allow them time to compose themselves. In some circumstances, I would ask whether it might make sense to take a break or to reschedule the next day when we would complete the conversation.

    Last and not least, if I suspected ahead of time that the discussion might head in the crying direction, I would make certain to not be in a fish-bowl setting (e.g. internal windows etc.).

    Many managers melt when the tears start, and that defeats the need to have a professional, courteous and behavioral/business focused discussion.

    Treat people with dignity always, provide time if needed, but don’t let the tears derail dealing with the issue.

    Thanks for raising this topic…it is one that merits discussion and coaching.

    Best, Art

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Great advice, Art. The kleenix box is exactly what I do myself. If someone starts crying, I always just calmly and patiently wait to let them get it out. Many times that helps. I also tell students that if you know you are getting ready to have a potentially emotional conversation, schedule it at a time and place where the individual can “escape” if necessary. Close to lunch or at the end of the day. One of the most brutal things that can happen to someone is to be made to cry and then have to sit at your desk while other watch. Thanks, Art!

  3. Wally Bock says:

    If you have people at work some of them will cry sometimes. The neat thing about human beings is that we’re complex and emotional beings. If you want all the good stuff that implies, all the creativity and energy and emotional energy, crying will be part of the mix. And you’ll learn that there’s not only the crying, there’s the aftermath. In some cases it’s nothing. Sometimes it’s anger or embarrassment. All part of the human drama.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It does not happen often, but I know I’ve cried at work too. We pour ourselves into our work, and that is part emotional. Most crying is eposidic, but sometimes it can be chronic with a rare few individuals. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Wally! Bret

  4. Hi Bret,

    I think it’s unfortunate that more people are not discussing the issue of crying at work because we are all conditioned to look at it as being a sign of weakness, instead of feeling empathy toward the individual who is clearly in a vulnerable state. It’s also ironic that with so much press and attention being spent on how to be happy at work, there’s little or no content about the flip side of that coin.

    Personally, I think one key problem is that most of us are uncomfortable when, in the middle of a meeting, someone starts to cry. We are conditioned to think that we need to check ourselves at the door when we arrive at work. Perhaps as you said, if we look at this more as being a symptom of an underlying issue – and not as this expert claims being a case of not feeling good about how one looks that day – we might learn to appreciate that being happy at work also means being able to be human as well.

    Thanks for some great food for thought, Bret.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Tanveer, your observations are outstanding. You’ve added real value to this dicussion. I hope folks scroll down and read your comments. Thanks!! Bret

  5. Bert says:

    I had a point where I cried for some other reason then work and a Co-worker had seen me and I told her why I cried.Then a few days later she brought this up in a Metting in front of all other Team Members. So i was moved from one area of my job and the Viz President told me that was a weakness and he could not have a Manager cry at work.
    We all have a situation where we where close or did even sheed a tear some for sorrow and some for joy, after all we are still Humans and nobody carries a Serial Number on yheir back.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Bert. What happened to you was awful, but it is a perfect illustration of the prevailing attitude toward this complex subject. Thanks! Bret

  6. Ed Batista says:

    Great stuff, Bret–thanks for addressing this topic. You prompted some further thoughts from me:


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Ed, your post was excellent!!! I hope people scroll down and get the link to your article and read it. Thanks!!! Bret

  7. Diana says:

    This has been an interesting conversation to follow because for too long managers have tried to pretend that peoples personal lives were somehow totallly separate from their work lives—how can that really be true. Crying is not the only manifestation of this fact; we may see anger or withdrawl as well. It is good to watch for these signs and be proactive when possible.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Diana, I concur, it is not true. And that is GOOD news. When we bring our whole selves to work not only are we better employees, we are better people. We do need to address anger and withdrawl as well – those are very costly behaviors. There is a *reason* employees behave this way, and it is the fundamental attribution error to blame the employee. Thanks! Bret

  8. Linda Edwards says:

    I have been in this situation where the tears came at a most inopportune moment. It was caused by a high level of frustration. When a person feels that they are not listened to and de-valued it causes a great deal of stress. Sometimes the only way to relieve that stress is through shedding of tears. If managers paid closer attention to their staff’s issues perhaps we wouldn’t have so many tears in the workplace.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Linda, I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. You are absolutely correct that tears often signal stress, and that stress is usually caused by things outside of our control. It is BAD advice to tell the individual to just deal with it. Much better advice to have leadership recognize it as a problem and get to work on it. Thanks!! Bret

  9. Cathy says:

    I greatly appreciate the views both Bret & Ed Batista have shared with us. I work in an office filled with women and tears are a regular occurance here. Our work is stressful, and we often will get overwhelmed. What many fail to realize is that our tears are a way for us to cope with that overwhelming stress. It’s not because we are “emotional women” but rather that women tend to hold a lot of their emotions inside, and when we reach the point of crying, it’s a sign of our cup overflowing. Our tears are like a release of the pressure that has built up over time and we explode. I think it is less common for a man to cry over stress, but they lash out in a different manner, often through anger. I am thankful to work in an environment where crying is not seen as anything but a release of stress. No one even talks about it and it is all taken in stride with the situation at hand. It is always better I think, as a manager, to have an employee come to me and cry over what is bothering them instead of having them walk around the office with poor attitudes which can rub off on other employees, creating a more stressful and de-motivating workplace.

    Let it all out! I’d rather see tears than someone holding it all in and damaging their health or hurting someone else!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Cathy, I really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts – they are excellent! You are so right that it is MUCH better to release the pressure than to explode. Also true that men are releasing that stress as well, just in a different and probably more damaging way. Thanks!!! Bret

  10. M says:

    This conversation is important also in light of the ADA amendment and issues regarding employer notice of a disability (including mental disabilities like depression). Unfortunately, many peripheral matters and confidentiality provisions in forced resignation agreements prevent the necessary attention to this matter.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    M, no one has mentioned this yet, so I appreciate you pointing this out. thanks! Bret

  11. R says:

    Hello Bret,

    I regulary cry when I have converesations with my manager because of the way he talks to me sometimes. He was upset with me for crying saying that there is no excuse for crying because we are in a professional environment. However, I don’t think that he is very professional. But I am feeling bad about crying in front of the manager. What do you think?

    Thank you

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I think you need to start preparing yourself to move on to another job. If you stay in an environment that takes such an emotional toll on you, you are cheating yourself. They can only make you cry if you let them. If you work with your manager to try to change things and it does not get better, you should move on. Thanks! Bret

  12. Debi says:

    There are times when we cry. Women seem to have it hardwired at times and may cry when happy, sad, frustrated… A trick that I learned is when I feel the tears coming, look up. That will sometimes stop the flow and give you a chance to get back on focus.

    I also know that I’ve seen employees that cry when they are having performance discussions with their managers that don’t go well. It’s unfortunate, but it’s important that while you recognize crying is a normal human emotion, people occasionally try to manipulate the situation. I’ve seen managers very uncomfortable continuing with a crucial conversation due to tears that may or may not be crocodile.

  13. rebecca says:

    i have an employee who always gets teary or cries whenever i give her feedback that requires change on her part. Often she cries if i require her to do a task that is in her job description and she will whine that she shouldn’t have to do it – it’s a “junior’s job”.
    I have even given her the feedback that it is really inappropriate for her to cry every time as i find it manipulative. Basically it is impossible for me to get her to do any task she doesn’t want to do because she either cries or sulks. HELP. I am at the point where i dread asking her to do even a simple task – and on top of this all my other staff have complained to me about her rudeness and attitude – how will i ever manage to tell her that!!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Rebecca. I feel for you. Have you been documenting all the actions you have taken? If not, I think you should start. If you are sure there is nothing in your behavior causing the crying, then you are correct that this is potentially manipulative behavior. Have you asked her why she cries? If it is something about you, fix it and eliminate that excuse. If the crying continues, get others involved to help. Never give up the bottom line that the performance behaviors must change, its your job to help her change, your job to hold both of you accountable for that change, and that you intend to do your job. Thanks! Bret

    Sara Reply:

    I don’t think this is the case with Rebecca’s situation since there seems to be an attitude problem on the top of things, but I’ve seen constant dwelling up with people who seem to have perfectionist traits. I am slightly in this category myself, and a co-worker told me that it’s not even the criticism itself that makes her cry, but the feeling that she has let down herself in her performance.

    I definitely dwell up (I never break down in tears though) when extremely frustration is combined with injustice (say, being accused of something that is not justified) and it’s often topped with fatigue too. I have quite alert guilt censors in addition to a strong sense of obligation – too alert and strong, even – so if I feel like my performance hasn’t been perfect, I feel guilty and bothered.
    I’m very conscientious and take my work and tasks appointed to me very seriously, so when confronted in a situation where I’ve already been feeling guilty about a topic beforehand, there’s a good chance that I’d want to break in tears.

    I’m glad to see that not everyone judges crying – I’ve encountered some harsh situations (such as today – that’s why I ended up reading this). It’s a pity that so many see my devotion and consciency as a weakness and a sign of incompetence.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret

  14. Gail says:

    I am a middle school teacher who gets teary – sometimes just alligator tears – once or twice a year when my kids stress me out. Usually it is massive insubordination and I feel overwhelmed and unappreciated. I practice a very positive approach and have inspiration, rewards, and I work hard to build their self-esteem. Every so often, they just tear me down and I shed a few tears (sometimes anger, sometimes disappointment). Adolescents aren’t very considerate!
    I am glad to see that you affirm a right to have emotions at work. I have learned to control them more than in the beginning of my career, but when disrespect becomes severe, it is hard to remain disconnected. I just care a lot about my students. Teaching can be quite personal.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Gail! I teach too, so I know you have a tough job – tougher than mine. I don’t know how you guys do it, but I’m glad you do. Your work is important, and it does make a difference, but you will usually not be there to witness the rewards of your labor. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  15. Kim says:

    In this video, it states we are all human…which is true and crying is okay, but what about the coworker that cries on a weekly basis? And always talks negatively?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Kim. A coworker that cries on a weekly basis clearly has other emotional issues. Only the most extreme of bullies would be so bad to make someone cry that regularly. thanks for sharing! Bret

  16. lexi says:

    I have a coworker that will refuse to speak with me infront of office cameras. She just walks away, sadly her job and my job are so intertwined i cant just not speak with her as communication is key to my jobs prrformance i need info from her on a daily basis. When we get away from cameras and try to speak if everything isnt her way she starts to cry scream say things like ” im never right, your not my boss etc” she does it loud so everyone hears. Then tells them its because im rude to her. But she does it to several coworkers and tells the boss we are ganging up on her. She makes me feel like a terrible person. Ive tried refusing to go away from cameras but then i dont get what i need to do my job and i look bad. Ive tried email only communication but she complains because her computer skills are very poor. Its so manipulative. Crying has no place at work. It just allows some people to take advantage and play the victem. Sadly our boss believes her and calls me the control freak, because he believes crying is an outpouring of emotion. Leave the tears at home

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Lexi. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bret