How to Support and Motivate an Emotional Employee

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I am honestly about to lose my mind a little bit here and I am hoping you can help. I am a project manager and supervise two people below me. Admittedly, I have only been a manager for two years so I am sure experience isn't on my side.

That being said, when I give feedback to one of my team members, she periodically cries. Sometimes, her eyes just kind of mist over and it passes but last week, during her review, when I asked her about a 10 percent decline in her client retention, she started to cry. Real tears. She couldn't get it together.

I didn't know what to do, if I should keep talking or if I should stop. I was still responsible for getting her the message and she was still responsible for hearing it. Any tips for managing this with more ease?

Thanks, Marcus

It's exasperating when you've given an employee some feedback and they respond with a few or more tears. Of course you want to borrow Tom Hanks' line and say "There's no crying at the office!" It can feel like your patience is being tested or you might feel like you're being manipulated.

It's not easy responding to a person's emotions in the workplace but it is possible to be a supportive manager while also helping them improve their job performance and productivity.

Stay Calm

It can be daunting when someone is suddenly crying in front of you, especially at the office, where crying isn't as typical or expected. The person in front of you may be just as surprised by their emotion and might just need a second or two to regroup.

It's ok to say "I understand. I probably caught you off guard with my feedback. Just take a minute." You can look down at your lap for a moment or two, avoid eye contact, and see if the employee regroups on their own.

Don't skip the tears or pretend that it didn't happen. Just do a quick check in: "Are we good?" before you move on to the rest of the conversation you planned.

Find Their Strength in Their Emotions

Few things can change a manager's perspective on an employee faster than when they suddenly cry or have an emotional outburst of some kind. Be careful not to equate their emotions with weakness or a lack of capability.

Not many people cry over things they don't care about. If someone is showing emotion over their job performance, they care about their work and whether or not they are doing a good job matters to them. Whether it's convenient or not, whether it makes sense or not, a crying employee can also be a sign of an invested employee and you don't want to write an invested employee off too quickly.

Ask Questions to Better Understand Their Reaction

If the crying continues after you've given the employee a second to calm down, it's ok to ask about it to better understand what is happening. You may get important feedback as a manager or you might come to learn that something you said was misunderstood. You'll appreciate the opportunity to clear something up.

Try asking "Hey, what's going on here? What are you reacting to?" Be careful to not immediately apologize. You may not have done anything wrong and you don't want your apology to be understood as backing off from your feedback. Get a sense of where the employee is at, what they're thinking, and what they are reacting to.

Correct any misunderstandings and consider offering the employee a quick break to get themselves together and calm down.

Validate with Accountability

When you return to the conversation, check in on how they're doing. Offer validation that it can be uncomfortable to be emotional at work but that you get it: "Receiving feedback can be hard and embarrassing but it's how you are going to become more efficient and better at this job. People earn new positions by learning new skills and improving upon their mistakes."

If you see potential in the employee, say so and remind the employee of what they bring to the company before reiterating the feedback and expectations.

In cases where your crying employee is also a problem employee whose job may be in jeopardy, avoid talking about their potential but be clear that you see your expectations as reasonable and necessary.

Offer Options and Follow Up

Don't leave the meeting without clearly detailing expectations for what the employee needs to do as a way of improving their performance and when their progress is going to be reviewed.

Consider having this part clearly written out and have the employee sign it. You can them email them a copy of the agreement after the meeting as a way of establishing accountability.

Crying happens but it doesn't have to be a big deal.

People are human and sometimes they can't regulate their emotions on cue as we'd prefer. You can, however, still be supportive while maintaining accountability.

Photo: Pixabay