The crier at work

The workplace can be a hotbed of emotion. The usual emotions we see are stress, frustration, with the odd celebration and piece of excitement thrown in.

But what happens when someone is overcome by frustration and is reduced to tears? How are you supposed to respond?

1. Why does it happen?

Crying is the body’s natural release valve when internal tensions are running too high. Crying in the workplace occurs for a variety of reasons:

  • Not coping with a new role.
  • Feeling overwhelmed trying to learn new skills.
  • During a period of intense pressure and stress.
  • After heated verbal confrontation.
  • Receiving critical or harsh feedback.
  • Dismissal notice.
  • Receiving a shocking piece of news.

It is often a shock reaction and usually happens when the person wasn’t expecting the trigger event. For most, crying is very rare, for some it can be a long time habit when things get tough.

2. When criticism or aggressive behaviour triggers the tears

Aggressive behaviour and intense criticism sometimes go hand in hand, sadly.

It is a form of intimidation and if done in front of a group the hurt inflicted is much more severe. The recipient often feels alone and without any escape route. The tears break the tension and the emotion begins to flow. This situation requires someone to show some leadership – to take the person aside and offer some support. It can be a test of a team’s culture as the instigator may have rank that others try not to side against.

The person should be taken to a more private area and be allowed to express themselves. If the person has been treated unfairly then it is helpful to discuss next steps as the embarrassment and fear that is created can be difficult to overcome. Addressing the issue quickly will stop anxiety and tensions building in the long-term.

Sometimes it is helpful to say, “It is normal to feel upset” when you feel overwhelmed. “I can see how this must be hurting you, so let’s try and work out what to do next”.

3. When bad news is the trigger

Telling someone that they no longer have a job is probably the worst part of being a manager. Even if the person was incompetent, unruly and fought with everyone it is still a very uncomfortable discussion to have. This is a situation where crying is common. Receiving such negatively life-altering news reduces many people to tears. It’s important to keep at the front of your mind that the person is feeling extremely vulnerable and embarrassed. Offer tissues, water and you may even leave the room for a few moments while they collect themselves.

From there you can enter discussions and provide your help. Explore the concerns and listen actively. Frustrated people rarely have an adequate outlet, so if you can offer this to someone in a very low point in their lives you will be offering a great service.

4. What if it is an overreaction?

Have you ever seen someone in the office break down and wonder what all the fuss is about? Or given some mild criticism or retort and seen the tears welling up in their eyes?

It’s easy to forget that there is a much bigger world outside of the workplace. If you think someone is over-reacting to what you’ve said or done then take the time to talk through it. Address the surface issue and admit fault if you think you should, and then ask if there is something deeper that is troubling.

As much as we try to think of ourselves as rational, objective beings, we cannot splice our life into mutually exclusive silos. Trouble at home creates stress at work, and emotions can bubble over in one sphere due to pressure in another. Never assume that someone is “just overreacting”, never dismiss it as something that they just need to get over.


Eve Ash has produced a wide range of videos and DVDs on effective communication, leadership skills and how to manage your own emotions. All these resources can be seen on and her workshops are featured on


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