Giving performance reviews is rarely a manager, or an employee's favorite thing. This is particularly true when that performance review includes constructive criticism. Some employees take everything in their stride and respond in the way you would hope, positively, as they are genuinely interested in improving.
But when you’re giving someone helpful performance feedback and they burst into tears? It’s hard to stay focused on performance review feedback when it results in tears. So as a manager how should you proceed? Here are some tips and pointers.
Avoid Typical Reactions
There are several typical reactions managers have to an employee breaking down in front of them during a performance review:
“They’re making me feel bad!”
No one can “make you” feel bad without your consent. Is it good to empathize with the emotions of others? Yes. But tears don’t mean that you are doing something wrong. Your emotional reaction is yours to manage, just like they need to manage theirs.
“They’re trying to manipulate me, or to end the conversation.”
Not necessarily. Some people have a wider range of emotional display than others. While it’s possible (in rare cases) that someone has learned to use tears as a conversation-stopper, it’s not the norm.
“They need to control themselves.”
Any of us might have a once-in-a-blue-moon experience of crying at work, but there is a reasonable expectation that employees can maintain emotional control. Why? Accepting feedback is part of the job, and managers are perfectly right to expect professional conduct. If emotions or tears get in the way of professionalism, it’s a performance problem.
Tips for Managers, When Employees Cry
Check yourself. Are you being loud, abusive, or harsh? No one deserves to be belittled. If you are contributing to the problem, fix that first.
Hand them a tissue and pause. Most of the time this will give the person a moment to compose themselves. If you like, you can add “I’m sorry that this upsets you, it’s not my intention.” Once they’ve composed themselves, continue.
Allow for some differences. We each have our own comfort level with emotions at work. If you are extremely composed, but your employee “has their heart on their sleeve” don’t judge them too harshly. Allow for a reasonable range of expression.
Inquire. “You seem very upset about this…” can be a mild probing statement. Perhaps there is something going on that you can’t see.
Take a break. If this situation is a rarity, you might offer to pick the conversation up later. Don’t do this if they cry every time.
Set expectations about emotional control – “I’ve noticed that you’ve cried the past few times I’ve given you feedback. Why is that? …. I don’t expect you to be emotionless, but it is a problem when your crying means we can’t have a conversation about performance. I need you to be able to listen to me and respond without breaking down. Can you do that?”
The Impact Contempt, Sarcasm, and Other Manager's Bad Behaviors
As leaders, people are human and fallible. They make mistakes. But sometimes the mistakes they make live on for a long time. Particularly when they break trust with their teams.
There are many “issues” we need to respond to in the workplace. Performance goes off the rails, people behave badly, communication misfires, or drama ensues. Responding to these challenges takes courage, patience, and an impressive toolbox of experiences and scripts.
One of the assets any good manager builds up over time is trust, the willingness of others to believe them and follow them. But there are some mistakes that can destroy that trust.
- Sarcasm – You are frustrated with an employee, and so the next time she says she completed a task, you shoot back a sarcastic reply. “Really? Miracles do happen!”
- Contempt – You fly off the handle when you see yet another botched product release, and you call the team into a room and tell them exactly how worthless they all are.
- Name-Calling – You call someone “a loser” or “an incompetent.” (Yes, it will get back to them.)
- Rejection – A team member comes to you with an apology or to make amends, and you refuse to listen.
These mistakes can be profoundly damaging to an organization. Why? These are the kinds of behaviors that are rarely forgotten. They create a deep emotional impression, and they make the recipient lose faith in the manager and the company.
So how do you recover? Again, we are all human. We all make mistakes. Just keep in mind that the impact of these behaviors is hard for your employees to recover from. Avoid these mistakes. Apologize genuinely if you go off the rails, and if you do so quickly, and genuinely, the chances are good that all your hard work in trust-building won't be lost after all.