How leaders deal with tears

I don’t know if I have an innate ability to make people cry but it seems in the last week, I was met with lots of tears.  

I had clients crying, members of a company where I was working crying and members of the basketball team I coach bawling their eyes out. In 30 years of business ownership, I have experienced lots of crying. Staff crying because they were, happy, sad, angry or for being held accountable; shoplifters crying because they were caught;  employees crying at the loss of a staff member, all that on top of the expected tears of kids and family.  

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As leaders, we are bound to experience tears on a regular basis but how do we deal with tears? Nobody teaches you in business school how to handle crying. 

Crying 101 should be a mandatory course for business leaders, especially men like me.  When I was younger and in my early 20s, dealing with tears was difficult and awkward. As a young man, how was I to know why an older employee was crying or what to do about it?  My solution was to ask the person if they were OK and hand them a roll of toilet paper before I headed out the door to take care of some emergency. Why would anyone bring tears to work, I would always wonder?

As I have been educated by my wife who has a degree in counselling, tears are normal. In fact, she has encouraged me to show my emotions more and not bottle them up inside. A hard concept to grasp for men like me brought up in this society where men’s tears have been seen as a sign of weakness. I get it. Yet dealing with tears in the workplace can still be unnerving. It feels awkward when a co-worker, client, or employee starts crying. 

So what should we do? I am not an expert but this is what I have learned over the years in business and as a business coach. 

1. Crying is often not about you and might not even be related to the situation. Employees who are brought to tears in your presence might not be crying for anything you have done or said. The client who was crying in front of me last week was in tears as a result of the financial stresses she perceived she was under and the pressures that she was putting on herself. 

2. Offer comfort and don’t expect the tears to quit immediately. As leaders, showing compassion and understanding to those who are upset can go a long way toward calming those emotions. This can be as simple as passing a box of Kleenex (yes, I have moved up from the roll of toilet paper) and offering to give them a few minutes to compose themselves.  Sitting patiently if you are in a meeting with them or giving them a time to go for a short walk might be all you can do. 

3. Don’t try to solve their problems. We don’t know what is going on in other people's lives anymore than they understand what is going on in ours. So how can we solve the problem that has brought them to tears in the few minutes we are spending with them? If a team member is crying and they don’t want to tell you what is going on, you don’t need to push the issue. “They will tell us if they need to” has always been my belief. However, ensuring that they know we are available if they need us might be all that is necessary for them to feel that we are standing behind them. 

Tears, as I have learned, are normal and they are going to flow if you are around people and especially if you are in leadership roles. If you are a leader who is a jerk, (tear-jerk leader) you might have more employees crying but you probably won’t even notice. Being compassionate and empathetic will make a difference for your employees and those around you. It might even help you feel better about yourself. Understanding how you feel about tears and having a plan to deal with them when they come will make crying feel less awkward and intimidating as you develop your leadership style and grow your organization.  


— Dave Fuller, MBA, is an Award Winning Business Coach and the author of the book Profit Yourself Healthy. Dave is crying to hear from you email


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