Guest post by John Howie, Vice President of Learning

I’ve been working with a downstream energy company, and I had just finished a presentation on how to speak honestly to authority. I challenged the group to get together and choose a few tough questions to ask me. I promised I would respond honestly, and that I would ask around if I didn’t know the answer.

This one is the first one they picked. Sure… start off with an easy one…

“What do you do when an employee starts to cry in a meeting?” It is an interesting topic, and not one that is often talked about. It seems this company has someone who tends to be a bit weepy, and no one knows what to do.

I get it. This was a group of senior professionals, and like them, I grew up in a generation that stigmatized crying. That’s probably the nicest way to say that I’ve been called “crybaby” a thousand times. “Men don’t cry,” “Keep it inside,” and similar comments were part of the mantra of my entire generation, and the peer pressure to conform was extreme. It was an almost universal message, and those mental habits were fed to me and reinforced for decades before I ran into actual tears in the workplace.

Thankfully, I was lucky enough to have a seasoned leader who was honest and blunt and showed me a way to handle the tears at work.

The first time I was in a meeting with someone who started to cry, I was there with a seasoned HR pro who was taking the lead on a difficult conversation. I was new to the job and had inherited a staff member who was certainly struggling. This individual’s former manager had been walked out of the building, and I was inheriting a lot of unresolved issues. I was told that my first interaction with this new staff member would be to sit in on a previously scheduled performance management conversation. During the conversation, my new employee started to cry.

The meeting started, and before we could even reach the second item on the agenda, my new employee started to well up. We immediately took a five minute break, and the HR pro and I were left alone. After a quick debrief, my new colleague asked me:

“In all honesty, what did you think of the crying?”

Well, I wasn’t prepared for that question. We were working on honesty as a learning attribute, and I should have guessed this would turn into another “teachable moment.” It is a good question, and I had about a minute to answer, so the clock was ticking. I hemmed and hawed and said, “Honestly, I need more time to arrange my thoughts.” Ha. Successfully stalled. My new employee returned to the room, and then my lesson began.

Here’s the gist of that lesson that has formed the framework for my approach to this challenging situation:

Address the crying.

Crying is emotion spilling out of one’s eyes, and nothing more. Yelling, crying, sighing, laughing – emotion comes out differently for everyone, in some ways that are more appropriate than others. When the crying begins, let the employee know that you’re going to plow through the agenda, but that anyone can signal for a five-minute break, to begin at the end of the agenda item.

Ask if the level of emotion is all work-related.

Managers track hours, but leaders engage. If you discover that life sucks for an employee, you can be empathetic and encourage them to find support for the non-work stuff, and even point them to personal or family resources that can help. Let them share their personal situation only to their level of comfort, and then get back to the agenda as quickly as you can.

Keep going.

It sucks for everyone, but the conversation has to finish. Clear your schedule and take as many breaks as are needed, but make sure all of the agenda items are addressed before the end of the conversation. There may be more tears, but you now have a plan to work through them.

The key to this approach is to speak honestly about the crying and the various emotions. Some people shout, some people fume, some people shut down and some people cry. It’s not for me to judge how the emotion spills out, as long as it’s presented respectfully. As a leader, it is my job to figure it out and try to find a way forward.

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