by Steve Adubato, PhD

At a recent corporate seminar on communicating feedback to underperforming employees, a candid and sometimes uncomfortable discussion took place about what happens when some employees get overly emotional and actually cry in the workplace. Consider this scenario, which many seminar participants--both male and female--said they had witnessed or participated in directly as managers.

Jim, a department head, had to inform one of his direct reports, named Jane, that she was not getting the job done and that her performance was unacceptable. Said Jim; “Jane, I must tell you that your performance over the past couple of months has been very disappointing. Several reports you submitted have been sloppy and incomplete. There have been typos and factual errors. I have also noticed that at last week’s staff meeting you were disengaged and when I asked you a question, you had no idea how to deal with it. In addition, I’m concerned that your division is running over budget and we just can’t have it…”

Jim’s voice was strong and firm. He wasn’t screaming or yelling, but he was passionate and there was no doubt that he was unhappy with Jane’s performance. But before Jim could even engage Jane in a discussion about what needed to be done to improve the situation, something happened that will stop any manager dead in his or her tracks. Jane started to cry. Her shoulders were shaking, and tears were running down her cheeks. She finally said; “Jim, I just can’t listen to this anymore. You are being so critical.”

Jim was dumbfounded. He was simply trying to communicate with Jane, who had been on his team for several years, that her performance was sub-par. He had always liked and respected her, and he felt that communicating in such a candid and direct fashion was a sign of respect. Further, he believed that by having this conversation, he was giving Jane an opportunity to improve before things got worse. But because Jane broke down, so did the communication.

Let’s consider what happens when employees start crying when someone in the workplace communicates in a direct, yet critical, fashion about performance issues.

--For anyone who sees or hears about the situation, the person who breaks down could be considered weak. He or she may be tagged as someone who can’t handle the pressure and could potentially have his or her career jeopardized. How can someone lead others if that person can’t manage his or her own emotions?

--The communication pattern in an office changes dramatically if a colleague has a history of being hypersensitive to criticism or, as some say, “acts like a baby”. Many people will hold back on saying what they really think about someone’s work performance or an idea he or she has for fear of the colleague's reaction. When this happens, a team's overall effectiveness is seriously damaged.

--Another negative impact is that productivity suffers. When an employee breaks down and cries for the above mentioned reasons, not a lot of work gets done. Time is spent trying to calm the person down or get him or her “back to normal”. To be clear, I’m not talking about someone in the workplace getting emotional over a personal or family-related issue--I'm talking about a colleague communicating dissatisfaction regarding a specific, work-related performance issue or a difference of opinion about a project.

In the movie, “A League of Their Own”, Tom Hanks famously said, “There’s no crying in baseball”. And while I said it many years ago in this column, it bears repeating. With few exceptions, when it comes to day-to-day workplace communication, there’s no crying in business.