Managers have to deal with many challenging scenarios as part of their role, from having difficult conversations about poor performance, to making someone redundant, to explaining to a team member that they have an unfortunate body odour. But for many, perhaps the most uncomfortable scenario of all is when you come across someone in floods of tears at their desk, or bump into them as they run sobbing for the nearest loo.
At such moments, panic is a natural first reaction, but as a leader and agent of change within your organisation, you know that people will look to you to set a constructive and respectful example. Fortunately, although the terrain ahead of you may be fraught with risk, others have successfully navigated it before you. Use the following set of best practices to formulate and implement the appropriate response…
1. Create a safe space
If someone is already feeling upset and anxious, the last thing they need is someone around them – especially a manager or leader – who looks awkward and unsure about what to do. And of course the last thing you want to do is to make the crying party feel any more uncomfortable than they doubtless already do.
So if you do see someone crying at work, the first question to ask yourself has to be: Can I get away from the scene without anybody realising I was ever here? Take a good look around, and if you haven’t been spotted by anyone, Get the fuck away fast.
How do you avoid being seen? Well, crying often happens quite late in the day, when perhaps the majority of people have already gone home. You might hear some quiet sobs emanating from a workstation, for example. Hearing before seeing is always useful, because in such situations it is often quite possible to walk very fast past the workstation and make it look like you are very distracted, or in a big hurry, or dreamily listening to something through your hastily applied earbuds.
Act as if you have heard nothing, perhaps emitting as you go a light airy whistle or engaging in some modest rhythmic tapping on your thighs, as if in time to some private melody that only you can hear. (A stretch target here would be to actually sing out loud in a way that might be construed as slightly embarrassing to you if overheard; the beauty of this move is that others will now be trying to avoid being noticed by you, in order to spare your strategic meta-blushes.)
Sometimes you might hear someone crying in a cubicle in the loo. Best to leave as quickly as you can, and go and complete your business on another floor. You can rarely be held accountable in such a scenario (unless you have an incredibly distinctive footstep) (or micturation style).
2. Practise active listening
There may be some occasions, however, where taking positive steps to avoid the situation altogether will not be the appropriate strategy. Much will depend on the context, of course, but the occasions we mean will all have one thing in common: you’ve been spotted. This scenario takes two basic forms: (a) where the crier has spotted you; and (b) where someone else has. A combination of (a) and (b) is also possible.
Now (a) might not seem such an issue. The crying person is in distress, you might reason, and will be too preoccupied to even remember your presence, especially if you slip away really sharpish. Not so. Remember you are a manager, and as such you are likely to enjoy a certain profile within your organisation; you are not, therefore, the sort of person who can pass unnoticed in your building. (See our guide, How to elevate your personal brand while appearing to be above such things.) Even if the crier overlooks you in the heat of their upset, there is a good chance that they will eventually recall that you were there. And if you fail to deliver any sort of compassionate or humane response, they are sure to tell others about it.
Scenario (b) is not ideal either, and for pretty much the same reasons. It would be just as damaging for a colleague or member of your team to notice that you observed the distressed person but failed to go to their aid – or even worse, to be spotted trying to sneak away.
In either of these cases, then, failure to act will see you marked down as callous, unfeeling, inadequate. The fact that there may be some justice in these epithets is of no value to you career-wise at this point. Indeed the whole point of the management track to which you have dedicated yourself it to maximise the virtues of your sociopathic tendencies without ever being penalised for the vices.
So don’t run. Don’t look embarrassed. Stand your ground. Understand that this is now a situation in which you will need to be seen to respond in some way. We’re very sorry, but there it is. Fear not, however: it needn’t be as bad as it sounds, and there are ways to turn this nightmare to your advantage.
3. Achieve through others
A powerful tactic in the event of being stuck next to a sniveller and having to pretend that you either care or know what to do is to find someone else to delegate the issue to.
Every workplace has an unofficial mother; this fact has been indisputable since the dawn of office time. Simply locate the appropriate person – it’s usually the office manager or the boss’ PA – and say in a quiet tone that conveys discretion, compassion and a panoply of as-yet-undefined finer feelings, ‘I think Jess is a bit upset; would you mind having a word? You’re so good at these things…’
Believe it or not (and we suspect not), there are some people in the world of work who actually get off on offering help, and they will be only too happy to volunteer. Indeed, their need to be useful and performatively compassionate in such scenarios is pretty much proportionate to your need to avoid the whole thing at all costs.
In the absence of such a Mother figure, it may be that the co-worker is known to be close friends with another co-worker. In which case, you might say to a bystanding minion in those same subtle, grown-up tones: ‘Go and get Caroline – tell her that Samira is really upset!’ The fact that you know Caroline is Samira’s best friend will score you emotional intelligence brownie points with anyone who witnesses this exchange; they will not need to know that Samira just whispered Caroline’s name to you through her tears.
4. Stay mindful and attentive
Let us turn now to the nuclear scenario, where you have not been able either to absent yourself from the incident without being noticed or to find anybody else to assume the burden of care. This is going to be one of those character-building moments that you will look back on one day as a defining milestone on your success journey. Fake compassion? Of course you can. Fuck it, you’ve faked everything else.
Sit near the offending party, but not too near. About half a dead body away. Say something pleadingly, self-evidently pointless such as, ‘Are you okay Maggie?’ (You’ll notice that most of our examples involve women; it’s usually them doing the crying). Do not on any account touch the offending party. Do make a modest amount of eye contact; 1-2 seconds every five excruciating minutes should be enough. Not that you want to be in there longer than five minutes: your key priorities here are to look and sound the part – and to get the fuck out of there as fast as you can.
Do not inquire after the cause of the upset. Do just look like you’re listening; simply saying nothing and not running away is a surprisingly effective tactic to apply to the emotionally incontinent, who will assume that you are actually thinking about them, rather than, say, mentally weighing up the pros and cons of that new Lexus hybrid, or crafting the opening lines of your witty but insightful turn at the upcoming Away Day. Do look down at the floor every so often. Do not manifest any signs of impatience. Do add in another pointless question every so often. Would you like some tissues? Can I get you some more water? Or tea?
Indeed, fetching liquid or tissues can be a game-changer: you can string this errand out for several minutes, and in so doing there’s always the chance that you’ll run into someone to whom you can delegate this whole nightmare. Indeed, you should see this as an important developmental challenge: if by the time you return to the scene you are still on the hook for its resolution, then you will have to ask some serious questions of yourself as to your leadership potential.
5. Lead by example
So you’re still stuck there, in consolation mode. The least you can do is extract maximum value from the situation in terms of profile raising and personal brand elevation. Necessity is the mother of invention, of course, but tedium and contempt are pretty cool too.
So here’s how it goes. Soon the crier will be feeling as embarrassed as you are (not showing yourself to be) by all the fuss, and will be keen to reassure you that your presence is no longer required. Are you absolutely sure? you’ll say. Is there anything else I can do? Of course there isn’t – but you asked and you have stayed to the end, and that’s the main thing.
In the absence of getting someone else to take over, getting the crier to dismiss you from the scene is the ultimate win. You have seen it through, you have brought the issue to a resolution. You were there for them, and it looks like you fucking care. Just make sure others have noticed.
6. Learn from the experience
The last question to consider is also the most important. Can you in any way, shape or form be construed as being in some way responsible for this crying? As you move through the stages of evasion, buck-passing and fake consolation, a series of key questions will no doubt have been running through your mind.
Is there any chance that you could be the actual cause of the outburst? Did you perhaps deliver to the crying person some very robust and perhaps slightly-too-personal feedback in front of every single other member of the team, perhaps failing to stop shouting even when they began sniffling and picking at a piece of skin on their arm in a way that another might have interpreted as extreme discomfort?
Did you berate them in a brutally intemperate email for a tiny error in a report, a report which they had just spent half the night putting together, so missing their child’s first school concert, because you didn’t get your feedback to them in time? Or did you perhaps, as you begin to dimly remember now, get all cheesy and gropey with them in the pub the night before, and their miserable hungover feeling is confused by the fact that they know they really ought to tell someone about your behaviour, especially in this day and age, they owe it to others too, but you are their line manager and generally considered to be a favourite of the all-male senior management team and they really like their job (apart from the shouting and the emails and all-nighters) and they really want to get on here, and they’ve heard that other complaints have fallen on deaf ears, so it’s all very complicated?
These are just hypotheticals, of course. Remember the old management adage: ‘There’s no ‘I’ in teamwork’? Sadly, all too true. But the good news is that there are two ‘I’s in impunity – and fully five in ‘plausible deniability’.