- finish the meeting quickly because the crying makes you feel awkward?
- hand them some tissues and wait until they are ready to continue talking?
- avoid talking about that topic again with that team member?
- offer to coach them on the area they feel uncomfortable with and develop them?
I was recently undertaking a Discovery session to find out how best to manage a conflict between two staff members when Betty (team leader) mentioned in her session with me that Terry (team member) would regularly cry during their 1-1 meetings. And when I said that crying doesn’t bother me, Betty was surprised. And I was surprised that Betty was surprised!
What I’ve learned about other people crying
Having experience of managing teams ranging in size from 1-30 and managing workplace conflict as a mediator for over ten years, there are different reasons your team members will cry at work. So far, I’ve discovered these reasons range from: a medical condition, to something going on in their private lives impacting their wellbeing, to something going on in their work lives impacting their wellbeing through to not wanting to talk about a particular work topic such as poor performance.
But, more recently, I added having a crush on their boss and using crying to elicit further attention as another tactic for crying at work.
That’s right. Recently, I came across a situation I hadn’t experienced before. For the first time during a Discovery and Mediation session, I suspected that Terry was crying in his 1-1 meetings with Betty to garner further empathy from her because of a dependency on her or even perhaps a crush. Now, I’m not formally trained in this area, but with over 25 years combined experience working with people as a teacher, HR manager, workplace mediator and now business owner, the fact that this was the first time this thought popped into my head meant I gave it serious consideration.
It’s important you know which type of crying you are being presented with, in case your employee is using a tactic to avoid a specific discussion eg their performance or as I recently suspected with Terry, because he may have a crush on Betty. (Betty told me that when he would cry in their meetings, her response was to provide him with more time than other team members. His behaviour ie the crying wasn’t changing and it is well documented that if people are getting what they want, they will continue exhibiting the same behaviours.)
I have found those people who are crying for genuine reasons will try to stop crying as soon as they can. Those using crying as a tactic won’t be so quick to stop.
‘Those using crying as a tactic won’t be so quick to stop.’
How can you tell the difference between real and tactical tears?
When I’m having a conversation with someone and they start crying, I follow the same steps each time to help me identify whether this person is crying for real or using it as a tactic. The steps are:
- let them know it’s okay to cry
- pull out the tissues
- get them a glass of water
As mentioned earlier, those who are genuine will try to stop crying quickly. Those who don’t want to be part of the conversation won’t try as quickly to hold back the tears and they even may become uncomfortable in their seat as they realise this trick isn’t working. So I wait. And I wait.
Don’t get me wrong, I am an empathetic person. But I’m also aware that some employees will try various tactics so I wait. And I wait.
But when I was faced with considering Terry was using crying as a tactic to gain more time with Betty, I recommended he be coached by someone else in the business to develop his capability in leadership – the area in which he needed development. I did not share my thought about his crush directly as it was only that – a thought and not a known fact. However, in my recommendations for supporting them in their future work relationship, I identified that Terry should be building a support network which did not include Betty.
So, to answer the original question, What do you do when an employee starts crying in a 1-1 meeting? I recommend you:
- hand them some tissues and wait until they are ready to continue talking.
Observing their actions in the meeting and what they achieve from the crying (if anything) will help you identify if the person in front of you is crying for a genuine reason or if they are using crying as a tactic. Then you can plan how best to manage them.