Tears at Work: How Leaders can Manage Emotion with Curiosity and Empathy

Is it okay to cry at work? 

Tears are natural and human. While not all of us cry, crying is a normal reaction to increased emotion. This is not a bad thing, and in fact, emotional tears communicate strong feelings and create a sense of vulnerability that improves relationships.  

While they can be embarrassing, the science behind emotional tears points to their helpfulness. We shed stress hormones through our tears, and they act as a natural painkiller. They are a soothing phenomenon. So, what’s the problem? 

Tears express intense emotion, and it’s not always appropriate to express intense emotion at work. Work, however, can be an emotional space. It takes up most of our time and energy, and we care about our work and those around us. There tend to be periods of high stress and pressure in any job, which naturally heightens emotion.  

What causes emotional tears?  

Emotional tears are linked to the sympathetic nervous system – the same system that triggers our fight or flight response. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we lose access to our full toolkit, leaving us with a reduced ability to emotionally regulate. This is when we are more likely to lose our temper and yell, shut down completely and walk away, or for some of us, cry. 

When we are confronted by intense emotions at work it’s easy to wish that the other person could keep things in perspective. It’s just work, why do they have to get so worked up about it?  

As a leader, however, this approach will negatively impact your business. Emotions come when we care about something, and we should want our employees to care. If we encourage people not to become so invested in their work to prevent emotional responses we don’t like, we’re also discouraging the passion that creates the best work.  

When you’re a people leader, it’s important to have understanding for moments of intense emotion. Your colleagues and reports are human – however much we’d all like to check our feelings at the door when we come to work, they remain with us. Even when we have large toolkits for handling our feelings at work, intense reactions still come up sometimes.  

When we are confronted with tears, it’s understandable that many of us want to shut down or disengage. Corporate culture by design works to minimize the messiness of emotion, but humans live the culture, so feelings are bound to boil over now and then.  

So, what do we do when someone starts crying at work? 

First, give them a moment. 

Chances are they are as surprised by their tears as you are. Ask them if they’d like to take a moment to collect themselves but reassure them that you’d like to continue the conversation when they are ready.  

If they’d like to continue the conversation, then give them a moment to collect themselves. If it’s a one-on-one conversation, let them be the one to start talking first. If it’s a group, then move the topic forward while trying to be mindful of the feelings in the room.  

Decide if follow-up is needed.  

If someone rarely cries, it might not be worth a conversation. Emotional outbursts happen, and if it was resolved in the moment, then it may be best to just move on.  

Follow-up will be needed if it happens regularly. If a person on your team is getting emotionally overwhelmed often, it’s important to understand why so that you can provide appropriate support.  

Becoming more reactive to feedback or other typical workday occurrences is a symptom of burnout, and their increased reactivity could be linked to this.  We’ve discussed the three main types of burnouts in blogs before – overload burnout, neglect burnout, and under-challenge burnout – and the signs of when someone is struggling with it.  

It’s also possible that they have something going on at home. We, unfortunately, can’t leave our personal lives at the door when we go to work. Life is complex and challenging at the best of times – if someone is going through a loss, whether it’s a family member or a breakup, they might not be able to bring their best self to work for a while.  

As a leader, it’s important to be understanding of this. The kindness you show during someone’s challenging times will be remembered and appreciated.  

Set a meeting and ask them how you can support.  

If the tears are happening enough that they need to be discussed, set a meeting. Try to have this meeting at a lower-stress time when neither of you has something to get to. This way you can create a relaxed tone that is open to conversation.  

Try to create an atmosphere about connection rather than productivity. Make yourself a cup of coffee or tea for this conversation and offer a cup to your report. Close your computer and put your notebook to the side. Your goal for this meeting isn’t action, it’s connection. 

Having this conversation in a private space is also important. If you bring up how they’ve been crying more than usual, there is a great chance that they’ll start crying. While witnessing someone else’s tears can feel stressful or embarrassing, remember this isn’t about you. Stay curious, give them space to collect themselves if they start crying, and really listen.  

Get curious with a question funnel. 

Try using a question funnel to get to the root of it. A question funnel is made up of up to five open-ended questions that increase in specificity as you ask. At the end of the funnel, summarize what you’ve learned back to them so they can confirm or correct the information you’ve gleaned. This will help minimize misunderstandings. 

Open-ended questions start with what, why, when, who, or how and they don’t allow the person to just answer with a yes or no.  

An example of an open-ended question is “What’s been happening that’s caused you to feel this way?” 

Ask how you can support.  

Once you’ve discussed the issue, ask them what you can do to support them. Tell them they don’t need to have an answer right away and instead set a meeting a week or two out where you can discuss actionable steps. 

If they are struggling with emotions caused directly by work, a coach could be a good option for them. A coach can help create strategies to help them manage their workload and their interpersonal relationships with colleagues.  

If they are impacted by external stressors, let them know if your company has any mental health support options.  

Regardless of where the stress is coming from, encourage them to take a little time off. It doesn’t need to be much. Even a long weekend where we turn off our work phone can help us reset.  

We’re here to help.  

If you need support with managing the emotions on your team, we’re here to help. 

If you’d like to learn more about the sympathetic nervous system response or the question funnel, we offer courses on emotional labour, managing challenging conversations, and much more.  

We also have coaches who specialize in leadership and communication who can help you show up for yourself and for your team. 

Reach out today, and we can start the conversation.