Managing Emotions

A LeaderLetter subscriber posed several questions related to managing emotions in the workplace.  I relayed the questions to LeaderLetter subscribers, and their insightful responses are posted here.  But first, here are the questions.

The Questions

Concerning emotional (i.e crying, angry, jealous) employees:

How do you deal with them?

How do you not be one?  I've heard a million times "count to 10" for anger, but what do you do about crying, jealousy or frustration I realize long run stress reduction will help, but what about when you're pinned down in a meeting?  By the time you count to 10 it will probably be too late, so I hesitate to recommend that to anyone.

How do you (especially men) deal with a woman crying in your office?  There has been some discussion about this in our office and we're a little divided.  I don't think most men have any idea why someone's crying (or they think they know and they're completely off-base) and they think it's "inappropriate and unprofessional."  While I agree that it's not something that I want to be doing at work, I think it's to be expected as much as anger. It's just a different way of dealing with a situation, one that happens to make most men uncomfortable, and really doesn't seem to bother the women managers I've talked to.  Most male managers I've dealt with don't seem to have any idea what to do.

    back to the top       send feedback        LeaderLetter web page

The Answers

One question was what to do with an emotional situation when there is no time to deal with it.  My answer:  Say that the matter is important to you, too, but right now you can't deal with it.  Schedule a meeting to deal with it, in a way that signals respect.  But don't reward emotionality by letting it trump other obligations or commitments or considerations.  I'm not saying that the person is most likely being emotional as a tactic for obtaining immediate attention.  But I do think you would encourage "urgent" emotional expression next time if you drop everything else because of emotional expression, or if the best way to get your
attention is to be emotional.

Another question was what a supervisor should do when someone (most likely a woman, realistically, but not always) is crying about work-related matters. My answer: Don't do much differently than you would if the person had used words instead of tears to express the emotional impact of the issue.  With words, you would have said things along the lines of "I can see that this is really important to you" and "o.k., so let's see if there is any way that I can have a role in helping with this."  The significance of the tears can be that the person (often a manager) who is seeing the other cry then starts to lose it (e.g. becomes anxious that the cryer is going to lose it totally).  So whose problem is the crying, the cryer's or the viewer's?

I don't see any point to telling anyone that their emotionality is inappropriate at work.  My guess is that they usually think so already, but find it uncontrollable.  So I mainly try to show respect (e.g., sympathy in some way) but otherwise I focus on the underlying issue. (Yes, I have been there a few times, as a man in a supervisory position seeing someone cry about a problem.)

    back to the top       send feedback        LeaderLetter web page

I do have some experience with employees (male and female) who come to my office and cry - or otherwise express anger and frustration.  If the expression of emotion starts to happen in a public place, I immediately steer them to my (or some other) quiet office.  I keep a full box of tissues on my desk at all times, because of it.  And I always take my box of tissues with me whenever I do a termination and/or exit interview.  Many times they don't get used, but you never know . . . .  But, besides providing paper supplies - how do I handle it?  I just keep a neutral voice tone and facial expression - I don't want the person to see pity or defensiveness or anything in my actions or mannerisms.  I let them talk (through their tears or through clenched teeth or whatever).

Then I tell them that I think their reaction is understandable (which it usually is) and ask them if they want to say anything else before we start to discuss the points they are trying to make.  I find that, if I stay calm and don't react, it sort of neutralizes the atmosphere and shows the employee that I'm not being judgmental.  That's when the two of us can start to talk about certain phrases or complaints that the employee mentioned while crying/ranting.  Unless I'm afraid of the employee becoming violent (which only happened once to me in 8 years, and even then I wasn't really harmed in any way - just worried!), I like to let them get their emotions out in the open, let them express those emotions, and then discuss their issues in a reasonable way.  It doesn't stop there, though.  After the discussion, the employee has to see from experience after the incident that my demeanor toward him or her has not changed.  I still don't show pity or defensiveness.  And I NEVER tell third parties that I witnessed tears or other emotional outbursts.  It's important to me that employees can trust me.

About my own tears or fits of temper on the job?  Both are a natural part of expressing strong feelings.  I'm a female, and I never have considered crying to be "unprofessional", even for men.  But I do understand that there are males out there still who feel uncomfortable with a woman crying in a business setting.  I admit that I have been embarrassed by my own displays of this nature in the past, probably because I thought it meant I was "weaker" than a man.  But, after I started being on the "management" end of it and helping others overcome their own embarrassment, now I don't feel ashamed about crying if I'm really upset.  I do for myself what I do for others, though.  I find a private place either to get control of myself (after allowing myself to "vent") or to tell my problem to my own manager (or colleague).

    back to the top       send feedback        LeaderLetter web page

I'm certainly not an expert in this area.  I've only had two episodes in recent years with a lady crying.  What I did was become very sympatic and reassuring to her that everything will work out if she would tell me her problem.  I made no promises, but did lend a sympatic ear and anything that I could control, or follow-up with someone else that could help resolve the problem, I did.  A lot of times just taking the time to quietly listen works wonders, at least in the short term.  But, if you promise to look into her problem or take a specific action, then by all means do so.  Just be sure you don't compromise any personal rights or confidences.

    back to the top       send feedback        LeaderLetter web page

1) How to deal with angry employees?
--Never deal with an angry employee in front of others.  Ask the individual to come into your office and work the situation out.  Ask the employee to state what is causing their problem.  (Try to determine if the employee may become violent and be prepared to react in a way that ensures your safety as well as other employees'.)  Ask the employee for solutions to that problem.

Never be empathetic.  That's a hard one for managers, but it can lead to trouble.  If the employee is showing anger in a meeting or some other place you cannot approach the problem in the way listed above, ask the employee to state what is causing their anger and ask them for solutions.  In past meetings in my office there is always one young woman who has a quick temper.  I have found that the best approach to handling things is to stay calm, listen to her challenges, and then ask everyone attending the meeting for solutions.  One or two times, in order to calm the situation, I have even asked her if she felt her actions were those of a professional.  That normally causes her to stop and think.

2) How to avoid becoming angry?
Anger is a natural human feeling.  However, it has no place in the work environment.  Anger can lead to many problems including employee tension and stress to work place violence.  A manager must understand that it is natural to become angry, but it is how you deal with that anger that will determine how professional you are.  I always make a concious effort to think before I speak, but even more so when I'm feeling upset.  To control anger, I determine what is causing it, and then create solutions.  By looking at the cause of the anger as a problem that has a solution, it keeps me calm.  Whatever the problem, I try not to let it show.

3)  How to deal with emotional (crying) employees?
This can be the true test of a manager.  Often managers will basically ignore the problem, hoping it will go away.  However, an emotional employee often is very unproductive.  A solution?  Ask the employee to come to your office and talk to you about what is bothering them.  The manager must listen intently.  Do not act empathetic, but be sympathetic when it is needed.  Ask the employee if they require a personal day if your company offers them and they are eligible.  Make sure the employee knows the company supports their employees, especially in stressful times.  If needed, a manager can recommend professional counseling.  The employee must feel comfortable with the manager and know the manager will not disclose what is said.  Often I've found, employees just need someone to listen.  In light of recent national events, there are many employees who are having emotional problems at work.  The worst thing a manager can do, is ignore them.

    back to the top       send feedback        LeaderLetter web page

How do you deal with emotional employees?  As a general rule, what I try to keep in mind is that I need to focus on behavior,
not emotions - I have to deal with the problem behind the behavior later.  So, if I have an employee crying in my office, I hand
that person a tissue, explain in a nice tone of voice that we cannot talk effectively until he/she can recover his/her composure,
and that I will return in five minutes.  Then I leave the room for five minutes.  By the way, I am female, it does bother me to
have people cry in the office because it is inappropriate and unprofessional, and I believe that almost any behavior that makes
other employees uncomfortable is inappropriate and unprofessional.  Along the same lines, if I have an angry person in my
office, I focus on eliminating the angry behavior first; for example, staying calm and refusing to talk with a person who is
shouting at me until that person regains his/her composure and can speak in a civil tone.

How to not be an emotional employee?
First, I try to anticipate situations that are likely to make me react emotionally, and prepare for them in advance by planning
reactions that are not emotional.  Emotional reactions are often learned, even thought they feel reflexive, and if I have a
substitute behavior planned I can usually overcome the reflex.  Second, if I feel a situation developing into one that is likely to
produce an emotional reaction from me, I either excuse myself from the situation for the moment or say some version of, "I'll
get back to you on that."

    back to the top       send feedback        LeaderLetter web page

As an employer, I've been faced with crying many many times.  I think the thing that I most focus on at this point in my career is that crying is really no different than screaming.  Most men see crying as some how very different from other emotional responses to stress.  Not so, in my opinion.

The most important thing to do, again in my opinion, is to avoid trying to solve the problem until one has clearly identified and defined that problem.  Crying, the same as any other emotional behavior, is a sign of stress and frustration.  But as managers, especially true for men, some people become caught in the trap of trying to "fix the problem".  Better to simply listen
and allow the employee the opportunity to ease the stress of the moment.  If in fact there is a problem that needs addressing, it will be there a day or two later.  That is probably a better time to tackle it.

    back to the top       send feedback        LeaderLetter web page

I agree that a lot of times crying in the work place is most definitely related to anger.  However, I believe that most managers need to recognize that the associate may just need a moment to collect themselves... depending on what happened.

For example, there was one time, shortly after I started working, when I found myself very close to tears.  However, I didn't truly understand what my manager's expectations were.  If I had been able to react by using what came naturally to me, which was anger, I don't think I ever would've been close to tears.  In my situation, I was dealing with a co-worker, who in my
opinion desperately needed told off, but that wouldn't be professional so I chose to refrain.  Instead, I kept allowing his tirade to go on.  Finally, I was so frustrated (because I wanted to tell them off, but knew that was inappropriate) that I found myself almost in tears.  At that time, I took a break and stepped away at the first available moment.

Then, more recently, I had a situation with a co-worker, who was angry and out of line. This individual is known as a bully, who usually yells at many of his co-workers and has made several female employees cry.  This time, I told myself that although his language was inappropriate, I was going to stand my ground.  I chose to "fight back", but without using poor language.  I was so embarrassed because it was quite obvious that others would hear, but I felt it's what I had to do to put a stop to this right now.  The end result was much different.  My co-worker ended up apologizing to me.  Now, I'm not saying that's the ideal way to handle this, but I do believe it depends on the situation.

Perhaps, as ridiculous as it may seem, managers, within their teams, need to promote and encourage associates to embrace the concepts of the golden rule.  In addition, I do believe that managers need to provide some of their associates with training to learn coping skills. Sometimes I wonder how some of my co-workers made it this far in life.

In summary, I would say that, "It Depends."  It depends on why the person is crying...  As you are probably aware, some women are master manipulators, but others may be using tears to handle anger.  I hope this helps!

    back to the top       send feedback        LeaderLetter web page

Minor emotional outbreaks can many times be handled by just taking the time to stop talking and listen, so listening should always be step one.  Far too many managers can't listen their way out of a wet paper bag because of their egos. Most managers become managers because of their technical skills not because they are professional mangers. These managers will lack the necessary people skills, communication skills and leadership skills.  I blame the colleges for this.  If you consider yourself a leader, then empathy is one of those attributes you will need to develop unless you want to be a leader with no followers.

Always remember this - a manager does not have to be liked, but he does have to be respected.  How you handle these situations will have an effect on the rest of your staff. It's your choice.  You can make up your own action reaction scenarios.  Pick one that will help you get the results you want.  The key here is to always follow the basic people management doctrine - Be fair. Be firm. Be consistent.

There are many conflict management techniques commercially available.  You should make yourself familiar with as many as possible and use them.

Be careful!  Emotional outbreaks can be a sign of serious personal problems like alcohol, drugs, spousal abuse, sexual harassment, etc. and can be the source of workplace violence.  Most companies have established guidelines for front line managers. If you suspect any of these causes you should work through your HR department to get them counseling services or termination.

    back to the top       send feedback        LeaderLetter web page