When Tears Take Over

Responding to a Team Member in Distress

When Tears Take Over - Responding to a Team Member in Distress

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A tearful team member needs managing with sensitivity and empathy.

Have you ever felt like you could just burst into tears in the middle of the working day?

Whether it's a work-related problem, a family issue, or some other emotional distress, sometimes you're gripped by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness or anxiety.

Most of us know that feeling, whether we've actually shed a tear or not. We spend many hours a week in the workplace, often in testing circumstances, so it's understandable that things can become too much to cope with.

So, how would you react if you saw one of your team members in tears? Would you immediately know the right thing to say, or would you be embarrassed? And what would you do if you suddenly broke down?

In this article, we look at some common reasons why people cry at work, and we explore ways to manage them through such a moment. Also, we examine what to do if you're the one who's reduced to tears.

Why Do People Cry at Work?

If you know why a team member is so upset, then you can work out the best way to help him or her. Common causes of workplace breakdowns include:

There's a perception that women are more prone to workplace tears than men, and there is evidence to support this. While researching her 2011 book, "It's Always Personal," author Anne Kreamer conducted a survey that revealed that 41 percent of the women who responded had cried at work, compared with just nine percent of the men.

The reason for this is partly anatomical – men have larger tear ducts than women, allowing more tears to build up before they fall. And there is research that suggests a connection between emotional tears and different hormonal signals in men and women. There is also a significant cultural aspect to crying: in many societies, boys and girls are raised to show their emotions in different ways.

But this doesn't mean that you should treat people differently because of their gender. Tears are tears whether they're shed by a man or a woman.

Managing Tears in the Workplace

Seeing someone in tears, especially someone you know well, can prompt an emotional response. You might feel sympathy, concern, awkwardness, or uncertainty. You don't need to rush up to him immediately and ask what's wrong, but neither can you ignore what's happening.

If you do ignore a team member's tears, she and others may feel that you either don't care or don't understand her situation. And, if you don't address what has upset her, it could cause her more stress and potentially result in her leaving your team – temporarily on health grounds or for good to escape the trauma.

There are three steps that you can take to help someone who's crying at work: deciding when to respond, exploring the underlying cause, and moving forward.

Step 1. Deciding When to Respond

Your first decision is whether to respond immediately or to give your team member a little time and space to compose himself. Your involvement may be welcomed, or it could be resented. This is a judgment call that depends on your sense of empathy, your degree of Emotional Intelligence, and your relationship with your team – you may not be the most approachable of managers.

It could be that her colleagues are already consoling her and have the situation in hand, and you can wait for an appropriate time to talk to her to find out if there's anything you can do to help. But if, for example, you see that her tears are because of another team member's behavior, you need to act swiftly to address the situation.

Another time that you should act sooner rather than later is if your tearful team member does not leave his desk or work area. Most people will find somewhere private, such as the rest room, if they feel that tears are imminent. Others, however, might break down without warning or feel that they need to get something "out of their system" in front of everyone. Ushering him to one side can prevent the rest of your team from feeling awkward or embarrassed, and can protect his dignity.

Step 2. Exploring the Underlying Cause

Once you and your team member have the time and privacy to talk, you can get to the bottom of what made her cry. Offering a little "tea and sympathy" can be enough to get her to open up, but be tactful. Ask if she would like a trusted colleague to be with her, too.

If she's not keen to discuss the details with you, you should at least try to establish if the cause is work-related. Our article, Questioning Techniques, has tips for asking "open" questions that encourage fuller, more detailed responses. If it is a work-related issue, you can draw up a plan to deal with it.

If she does open up, listen actively to her. Sometimes the biggest help and most calming influence for someone is simply being heard. But she may feel ashamed or embarrassed about crying publicly, and want to forget that the episode ever happened. It's important that you're not judgmental or dismissive of the cause, even if it sounds trivial to you. If she sees that you respect her feelings, it can build trust between you.

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Ask if there is anything that you can do immediately to help, but don't make promises that you can't keep. You risk breaking any trust that exists between you, and adding to her distress, if you don't follow through on a promise. If the issue is deeply rooted, let her know that you'll work with her to find a solution. If you think that she needs more expert or qualified help, refer her to your organization's employee support program or HR team.

You may feel that it's appropriate to send her home for the rest of the day, or to suggest that she takes some annual leave to rest. But check whether she'll have support while she's away from work, as isolation can make things worse.


On rare occasions, tears can be used deliberately as an attempt to manipulate or to control a person or a situation. If you suspect that this might be the case, consider conducting meetings with a colleague present as an independent witness of fair practice. Don't be afraid to take disciplinary action if it's appropriate.

Step 3. Moving Forward

What to do in the longer term depends on the cause that you identified in Step 2. If, after a full and honest discussion, you are satisfied that it was a "one-off" episode, you can suggest that she explores how to manage her emotions at work to avoid it happening again.

People are often too proud or afraid to ask for help, and that can put them under so much pressure that they break down. Be as supportive as you can, and set up some regular one-on-ones with her to monitor how she's coping and whether the situation is improving.

If your discussions reveal some more serious underlying problems within your team, you will need to develop a plan to deal with them. Our Bite-Sized Training™ session, Managing Conflict, can help you to do this.

When You Need to Cry

It's not always a team member that needs support. Chances are, as a manager, you may find yourself in a situation where all you want to do is curl up in a ball and weep. For example, you may feel overwhelmed by pressure to deliver results.

Do not feel ashamed. Follow the advice that you would offer someone else in the same situation, such as tackling the underlying issue, learning how to manage your emotions, or talking to your HR department or employee assistance program. Find a balance between behaving authentically with your team members and causing them worry.

Key Points

It can be awkward and embarrassing for all concerned when a team member cries at work. But you can't ignore it and just hope it doesn't happen again. After all, there could be a serious reason for him breaking down that needs urgent attention.

Common reasons for tears at work include bullying, overwork, team conflict, and fear of change. But it could also be that your team member is overwhelmed by an issue that is not work-related.

You need to approach the situation with tact, empathy and emotional intelligence. There are three steps to managing a tearful colleague: deciding when to respond, exploring the underlying cause, and what to do moving forward.


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