Telling them to keep their chin up just won’t cut it. This expert offers some clear and easy tips to make a positive impact.
Think of a safe place where you might cry. You might think of your home, a friend’s house or a secluded area out in nature where you know you’re truly alone. Work isn’t usually the place that comes to mind.
When you think of crying at work, you might imagine a scenario where you felt so overwhelmed with emotion that even though you tried hard to suppress it, the feelings bubbled over and poured out of your eyeballs.
But why does this have to be the case? Why do we feel we need to be stoic and ‘brave’ with our emotions at work? Well, it’s likely because some employers just don’t know how to react when someone cries in front of them – it’s not a situation they’re used to or comfortable with.
This is an area that Deborah Grayson Riegel, a keynote speaker, executive coach, and leadership consultant who has taught at Wharton and Columbia Business Schools, was interested in exploring after one her coaching clients asked her if it was okay to tell employees they couldn’t cry at work.
“As I coach, my job is to help people explore their questions and [examine] what’s underneath them. But in this case, the answer just fell out of me. I just said, “No. You cannot tell somebody that they can’t cry at work.” I’ve done enough leadership coaching and workshops on emotional intelligence and difficult conversations to know that somebody crying in your office is a significant fear for leaders.”
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Gather the emotional data
Grayson Riegel wrote about this topic in an article for the Harvard Business Review four months before COVID-19 was on our radar. Its publish date – June – couldn’t have been more well-timed.
This year has seen employees experience an onslaught of different emotions from anxiety, anger, loneliness, confusion, sadness and burnout, and a common response to these emotions is to cry. So knowing how to react is an incredibly important skill for leaders – and people in general – to learn.
Speaking to HRM, Grayson Riegel says the first thing to do when someone is crying is to take stock of how it makes you feel.
“If I see someone looking teary, upset or angry, the first thing I have to do is realise it’s having an impact on me and own that impact,” she says.
This is the stage where some people might let their uncomfortable feelings take over and dictate how they respond. Push through your own feelings, says Grayson Riegel, because that’s when you’re actually able to make a difference.
Next, she suggests we think of emotions as data.
“When someone is having a visible or audible emotional expression, there’s information there. In any other situation, a leader would run towards information, one would think.
“They’d see there’s something to learn or information that could help them manage their business or team better. But in the face of an emotional expression that has an impact on us, we run the hell away from the data.”
Remember there is information to be gained that could help not only this particular employee, but potentially many others.
“You’re taking away even more of their confidence and agency when you run in with all different kinds of emotional massaging techniques.” – Deborah Grayson Riegel
Reach for new tools
When you see a loved one or friend in distress, your first instinct might be to reach out and give them a hug. Obviously you can’t do that in the workplace, but Grayson Riegel warns about making assumptions about physical touch in any circumstance.
“I might want to [hug someone who is crying] but that’s about me and assumes a level of comfort from the other person. I know nothing about their comfort, their history or their triggers,” she says.
Instead, we need to become adept at using our words, and that might mean changing your usual go-to phrases when trying to comfort someone in distress.
“Acknowledge what’s going on,” says Grayson Riegel. “Say, “I’m noticing you’re crying,” which is very different to saying, “I’m noticing you’re upset, devastated, hurt etc.”, because you don’t know that – for example, I cry when I’m excited. Then you can say something like, “I just wanted to check in with you. What’s going on?”
Keep your language neutral but compassionate, she says. Offer for them to take a break from work but don’t insist upon it.
“When people cry, they often experience a loss of control and they feel embarrassed,” she says.
So if you’re making a big fuss and telling them to take a break, go outside or have a glass of water, for example, you could be inadvertently taking even more control away from them.
“This kind of response could end up making someone feel less empowered. You’re taking away even more of their confidence and agency when you run in with all different kinds of emotional massaging techniques. Give them the power to decide what they want.”
Avoid toxic positivity
People in leadership positions are often fixers. They’re hardwired to problem solve and present solutions. This is a great skill to have in many facets of leadership, but Grayson Riegel warns not to overdo it when it comes to supporting an employee who is crying.
“Because we’re [sometimes] uncomfortable in the face of peoples’ emotions, we try to clean it up by putting it into perspective. We say things like, “it’s going to be okay”, “this too shall pass”, “think about how lucky you are”. But I think that’s bull. That’s about trying to make you feel better. It’s not empathetic at all,” she says.
This kind of language can end up denying that person’s experience and skirts around the edges of toxic positivity which can invalidate normal, healthy human emotions.
“Think about the difference in impact between saying, “I’m sure everything will turn out fine” versus “I can see this is really hard for you”. That’s much more effective than saying, “cheer up!”. You need to be willing to be where they are instead of where you want them to be.”
It might take a little rewiring to move beyond these catchphrases – it’s how many of us have been conditioned to respond to such emotions. However, as the responders, we need to learn how to better receive people’s emotions, rather than thinking we need to immediately fix them.
Grayson Riegel suggests reaching for questions such as:
- “How can I be most helpful to you right now?”
- “Let’s pause for a moment. I can see you’re crying. Would you like to take a break or keep going? It’s up to you.” (Source: HBR)
- “You’re crying, so let’s pause. What would be most helpful for you right now? I’ll follow your lead.” (Source: HBR)
You could also offer the person some options, as they might not know what they want at that moment – but don’t insist upon anything.
“You might say, let me throw a few options on the table. One option is that you could take a break if you would like to. Another is that we could keep talking though this. And, I’m not sure what the other option is, maybe you have some ideas.” That gives the choice and power back to the person.”
Create a space that normalises vulnerability
If you want to be a workplace that’s known for managing the thornier emotions well, your practice needs to extend beyond how managers respond to employee distress in the moment to encompass your whole organisational approach to emotions at work.
This might not have been high on your agenda prior to COVID-19, but as emotions are still very much running high, it should be bumped up on your priority list; it’s likely your employees will expect it to.
“If I was to name one good thing to come out of the pandemic, it’s that people are more willing to talk about emotional pain. Six months ago, it was normal to say, “I’m good. Everything is good.” Now it would actually be seen as not normal or truthful to say that. The number one phrase that I hear and say is, “I’m hanging in there”. [The pandemic] has sort of normalised these conversations.”
The New Yorker inside Grayson Riegel says organisations should just call a spade a spade. If you want your workplace to embrace vulnerability, you need to say that.
“Make it normal and okay for people to not have it all together, to make mistakes, to struggle. Put that out there as a goal,” she says.
Next, like all workplace cultural shifts, it has to be modelled by leadership.
“If you’re in a position of power, you want to share that you don’t have it all together all the time. And when someone shares their struggles with you, positively reinforce that.”
These things aren’t always easy to share – it can require bravery from the employee’s part – so when they’re met with a compassionate, helpful response, they’re more likely to tell others of their positive experience and slowly but surely, it will become a normal practice.
It also needs to be really, really clear that what’s shared won’t be used against the employee in the future. While that might seem bleedingly obvious to you, it still needs to be clearly communicated to the employee.
“You want to create psychological safety by making it clear you won’t bring this conversation back up again, say in a performance review. There shouldn’t be retribution for sharing your struggles.”
While you absolutely want to keep information confidential, when done right Grayson Riegel says there are ways to respect employees’ privacy while also connecting them with others who are facing similar issues.
“You might say, ‘What you just shared with me about not being able to manage your work meetings while homeschooling, I think you might have some other colleagues who are wrestling with that as well. Would you be open to having this conversation with others who might benefit by knowing they’re not alone?’”
While you can be as prepared as possible to manage these conversations, it’s also good to know when you are ill equipped to step in.
“You might have your own stuff going on, so you’re not able to make the head space and heart space for another person. Another issue might be that you have an inkling that what that person is going through requires more than a manager’s support.
“None of that should let you off the hook though. Caring for your colleagues is your job as a leader and a team mate. You should be prepared to say, ‘It sounds like things are challenging for you right now. I’m wondering what resources you have available to help.’ Or you can offer to connect them with the wellness department or employee assistance program. You may not be the person someone tells their troubles to, but at the very least be a connector.”
Finally, we need to stop apologising for being sad at work, she says.
“You should apologise if you’re having a negative impact on someone else’s emotions… but I hear so many people say, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry I’m crying” which exacerbates it. Let people know they don’t have to apologise for having an emotional expression at work.”