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Tears and Tantrums
Nov 26, 2013

Tears and Tantrums

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now

Julius Caesar

I have previously given some tips on how to give effective feedback .  In giving constructive feedback and in a formal performance appraisal there are some situations that need special attention and require special skills.  Leaders and managers know that the ability to have a difficult discussion is crucial to not only their success but also the success of the business.  In this post and the next I will deal with some of those difficult emotional responses.

No one likes receiving what he or she perceives to be negative feedback, regardless of how well it is planned and presented.  So you need to anticipate an emotional response if negative feedback is to be given.  And that emotional response can come in a variety of ways.

Whatever the reaction, it is vital to the successful conclusion of the conversation to:

  • keep your own emotions in check;
  • not take the reaction or any comments personally and try and remember they are a result of built up tension or anxiety;
  • listen – mindful listening  assists with positive expressions. Let the person express the emotion first by showing you are willing to listen without interrupting
  • validate people’s feelings if you can, by showing empathy.  For example, ‘I understand this is difficult for you – let’s work on a way to get back on track’, or ‘ I understand you’re upset – I’m going to give you a moment to calm down so we can continue’

Here are some specific situations and how best to deal with them



There are two types of people who cry when given negative feedback.  There is the person who, for what may be any number of reasons, is genuinely upset, and then there is the person who is able to turn on the tears for effect and sympathy.  In my years of working with people I have become very aware of peoples’ various idiosyncrasies (good and bad), and believe me when I say that there are those who will cry to avoid or derail a performance discussion.

Regardless of the situation,  pause, and find tissues! A clever person who thinks someone might cry will have tissues at the ready. It is also useful to offer to get a glass of water as this can allow time for the person to regain their composure..

If someone is genuinely distressed, for reasons outside the appraisal or work, then I do suggest rescheduling for another time.  This is one of the few times I suggest this.  For example, if the person is upset because a relative has died, or has been diagnosed with a serious illness (or they themselves are not well), then they are not going to be in a position to discuss things in a rational way.  They may have been keeping their emotions in check at work, and this has allowed them to to let the tears flow.  It is one of the few times I would recommend allowing the discussion to be rescheduled.  In doing so, you are allowing them to recover from their embarrassment, and take some of the emotion out of the discussion.  You are also showing that you care.

If however someone becomes upset either as a means to derail the discussion, or to try and attract sympathy, it is important to continue the discussion.  As before, pause, offer a tissue and a glass of water, express empathy and suggest that when they are ready you can continue.  And sit patiently waiting for that moment to come.  I have been in a room with one such person who looked up at me through her tears and said ‘aren’t you going to say something?’ to which I responded ‘I’m just waiting for you to stop crying’.  Some might call that harsh, but it had the desired effect – she realised I knew she was putting it on, knew she couldn’t get out of the discussion, and so we carried on.


If the person you are talking to reacts angrily -  stay calm yourself.  There is a little part of the brain called the amygdala  which causes very emotional responses to perceived threats.  It hijacks the rational thinking part of the brain.  This is useful when there is actually a physical threat; not so much in a performance appraisal.  So the person you are talking to is having that happen to them.  Don’t mirror them and respond angrily by allowing your amygdala to hijack your own brain.  This will escalate the problem into an unresolvable argument and most likely an argument that bears no relation to the discussion at hand.

So if your employee becomes angry, stay calm.  Allow the anger to be expressed,  even – and this is important – if it involves a personal, verbal,  attack on you.  If you do respond, keep your voice low, slow , and controlled.  Oftentimes a calm response will calm the angry person.

Acknowledge the emotion they are experiencing (empathy again)  eg ‘I understand why this might make you angry’ , wait for person to finish, and restart the conversation.

In both examples, it is important to ensure the conversation comes back to the performance issue and a solutions focussed resolution.

And remember – it is a tough job sometimes being a manager of people.  Give yourself a pat on the back when you have successfully  concluded a difficult performance appraisal.