Why managers need to start becoming comfortable with tears while giving tough feedback

Tough feedback and tears

My husband (DP) told me about a woman on his team named Sara who had to be given some tough feedback. As he started delivering this feedback during their 1:1, she began weeping. Sara’s tears made him feel so uncomfortable that he ended the session abruptly, apologized to her and decided to avoid this conversation altogether.

While reflecting with me, DP admitted that when he has given tough feedback to men, they either accepted the feedback or got defensive, but never cried. DP even recalled going out for beers with one of his male direct reports right after a hard feedback conversation and felt like things were back to “normal” right away. But in the case of Sara, not only did she cry, but things between them became uncomfortable for the next few days.

I know that my husband is no stranger to tears since he is married to me! But then again, a conversation between a married couple or close friends that ends in tears is a different dynamic altogether. We can console one other and eventually come back to our conversation once the emotional outburst is out of the way.

But in a work dynamic, what is an appropriate response after someone starts crying? Should we console the person? Do we keep delivering our feedback or do we stop? We know that emotions and tears are inevitable in the workplace but there is no playbook for how to respond when this does happen.

My next question to DP was: “So, did you end up giving Sara the rest of the feedback?” He looked at me sheepishly and said “No, I’ll do that later”. I had a sinking feeling that “later” meant never, and this deeply bothered me.

I then decided to conduct my own research with more female professionals. What I found was that almost all of them had similar stories. While they valued the feedback given, they also found it hard to hear tough feedback without tearing up. On the other hand, when I spoke to both male and female managers, most of them admitted that it was much harder to give feedback to people who cried during a feedback session compared to those who did not.

Were tears getting in the way of critical feedback conversations between managers and female employees? Was this another key contributor to the proverbial glass ceiling that women are forever trying to break?

What does gender have to do with this?

I thought back to all the times at work when I felt mortified by my tears — which seemed to have a knack of appearing at the most inopportune moments. I made several failed attempts to change myself to be more stoic and unemotional at work but had never succeeded. After hearing the stories of all these women, I started accepting that I wasn’t alone. I did some further research and found that several factors affect an individual’s propensity to tears. Not surprisingly, gender is one of them.

The American Psychological Association published a 2014 analysis on “Why we cry”, detailing that testosterone may inhibit crying while prolactin (a hormone found in higher levels in women) may promote tears. Studies have shown that the male tear duct is larger than the female’s and so if a man and a woman both tear up, the woman’s tears will spill onto her cheeks quicker.

The more I researched, the more I was convinced about the following conclusions:

Women are biologically wired to cry more than men. This is a natural phenomenon and there’s nothing wrong with it.

Critical feedback is tough to hear and because of our biological wiring, women are more likely to cry upon receiving it. Nevertheless, women are asking for more feedback because they understand its importance for development and career growth.

Tears and tough feedback can coexist

I asked DP to reach out to Sara again and relay the rest of his feedback. I could hear discomfort in his voice as he asked, “But what if she cries again?”

I said, “Just because there are tears in her eyes doesn’t mean that her ears aren’t listening. Give her a tissue and enough time to compose herself and process her feelings. She may cry and may be upset for a few days, but she will likely benefit from it and improve. Please don’t give up on her. Please don’t give up on us!”

Armed with a box of tissues, DP completed his second feedback session with Sara. She took his feedback well and sincerely appreciated DP’s investment in her professional growth and development.

There are more and more women joining the workforce everyday as companies are understanding the importance of diversity at the workplace. Given everything that we now know about the way women are wired, we should probably embrace our tears and train our managers to not shy away or become uncomfortable when someone cries during a feedback session. And perhaps, we can then create a truly inclusive workplace where we all can be our best and most authentic selves everyday.

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Nabarupa Banerjee

Nabarupa Banerjee

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