I am the operations manager for a large veterinary hospital. It is a fast-moving, extremely busy environment, especially our 24/7 ER. I essentially manage all personnel because the doctors don’t have the time or the inclination.
We have one employee who is a challenge for me. She is a trained vet tech who is going to school to be a full veterinary physician’s assistant. I will call her Kira. She is technically proficient, reliable, and good with our animal patients and their humans. The problem is that she is a super emotional and starts crying at the drop of hat. When she gets harsh feedback about a mistake from one of the doctors, she comes crying to me. When a patient dies, she is a wreck for the rest of the day. I sent her to support a doctor for our Mobile Pet Euthanasia Program and she was a total disaster. She cried harder than the pets’ humans did and ended up being more of a nuisance than a help. I tried to talk to her about this but—you guessed it—she started crying and that was that.
I didn’t grow up with sisters and, generally speaking, don’t have a lot of experience with women. This is the first time I have been faced with this situation in a work environment and I have no idea what to do. I don’t want to be cruel, but I really need Kira to get it together. Any advice would be helpful.
Excellent timing on this query. Just last week I heard through the grapevine that a new employee I happen to know well had been driven to tears in a meeting. I texted her “Congratulations, you don’t have a real job until you’ve cried”—partly in jest, but also (at least for me) partly in truth. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have cried in the bathroom at work or at the airport after a job. Why did I cry? Because I cared so much about doing a great job and somehow missed the mark. The operative concept here is that I cared. Don’t we want employees who care, a lot, about doing a great job? Notice that my personal story uses the past tense. This is mostly because although I still care, I have gotten a lot tougher. It’s one of the advantages of age, I guess.
I have often wondered about the evolutionary purpose of tears because I have been personally betrayed by them more times than I can count. The research is paltry; the need for babies and infants to cry is fairly self-evident. Scientists hypothesize that crying in adults evolved as an emotional expression that signals distress and, in theory, should promote consoling and empathy from others. That seems obvious and not very helpful—especially if the response to tears is annoyance, which is the opposite of the desired response.
Here’s the thing, Unsympathetic. Crying is simply an expression of emotion. That’s all. It doesn’t mean you need to stop the conversation. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say what needs to be said. It is merely evidence that a person is experiencing strong emotion, and some people are more emotional than others. Kira’s tears aren’t going to hurt anyone; they certainly aren’t going to hurt you. My personal theory based on experience is that the more effort I put into not crying, the more shut down and removed I get from the conversation. If I just let ‘er rip, I can stay in the conversation, listen, respond, process what needs to be processed, and move on. If Kira needs to cry to avoid shutting down and becoming an automaton, well, so be it.
What if you were to stop judging the tears and let them be a natural part of who Kira is? Just have a box of tissues handy so you’re ready next time. Have the conversation(s) you need to have, let her cry as much as she needs to, and get on with things. Just notice your own discomfort with her show of emotion, breathe, and stay focused on the matter at hand. You sound like a competent person who cares, so just be patient and kind. The safer Kira feels, the more likely she is to calm down and take the ups and downs of the workday in stride.
Having said all this, the whole becoming-incapacitated-by-the-euthanasia-process is another thing. I guess you will just need to ask Kira if she thinks she can hold it together in the future. To be fair, the first couple of times really are shattering. The last time we had to do it, my husband was a wreck and the Doctor and the tech were both crying with us—so I’m not sure crying isn’t the appropriate response as long as she can still function. She may have to hold off on assisting on those kinds of services for awhile. Our vet has surrounded himself with extremely competent people who care desperately about our dogs, and it makes such a difference to us.
You might gently suggest that Kira Google some techniques for managing one’s emotions at work. There are some good suggestions out there. Or not. She may figure out on her own that she needs to do a little Googling.
Just a little note on gender. I do think that in our Western culture the male of the species has been beaten into submission to never show any emotion other than rage. In fact, it is my theory that any strong emotion in men tends to get expressed as rage, since that is the only socially acceptable form of expression for men. But I know one man who cries all the time. Ken Blanchard jokes that he cries so often, he thinks his bladder must be too close to his eyes. And it hasn’t held him back.
Relax, Unsympathetic. You really do want all of your employees to bring their whole selves to work. While it can be a little messy sometimes, it also means that they’re giving it everything they’ve got. And that’s a good thing.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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