How to tackle a colleague who cries when criticised

Tread sensitively with an overemotional colleague to help her face up to the source of her angst, says the Workplace Doctor.

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A member of my team is extremely emotional and during group discussions she will often break down in tears if her work is negatively critiqued in any way. Because we meet weekly to discuss the sales performance of each team, her overly emotional behaviour is becoming a stumbling block during the review sessions. How can I tackle this issue in a sensitive way? MM, Sharjah.

This is one of those situations where you have to make sure that you deal with the right problem. This sort of overly emotional behaviour in the face of criticism often has a different cause – so the criticism is a trigger for an emotional outpouring which is really about something else.

The trick is to find out what is really upsetting your team member. That means having difficult, personal and private conversations with her. This will require you to be sympathetic, but also assertive: if you can’t get her to address the underlying problem, then her behaviour is unlikely to change.

First I’d encourage you to think back over your colleague’s time with the organisation. Has she always been this sensitive to criticism? If not, when did she change? Finding the trigger for that change will usually enable you to help her address the real issue. Perhaps a colleague was especially cutting or cruel in some criticism that was offered. Or perhaps someone whose opinion she values has said something critical and this has been especially hurtful. Or maybe she was overlooked for a promotion she felt she deserved. The possible reasons are endless. It may also well be that the trigger is not work-related at all. There may be a domestic issue which means your colleague is trying to perform while carrying a heavy stress load – in those circumstances, she may not be ready to deal with anything but positive feedback.

You can’t let the status quo prevail because, as you say, her behaviour is becoming a stumbling block in the meetings. Nor can she possibly be happy with a situation where, on a weekly basis, she finds herself crying as part of what must feel to her like ritual humiliation. So no excuses. Sit down with her and try to help her address this issue and the cause of it. Give yourselves plenty of time, complete privacy and acknowledge that you may well need more than one meeting to get to the bottom of things. Start by asking questions and remember not to be judgmental. If the reasons behind your colleague’s behaviour are private and personal, then of course she has the right not to share them with you. In which case you both need to focus on exploring coping strategies so that the problems stop preventing her and the team from having fruitful meetings. If your colleague does share the reasons behind her unhappiness with you, remember that you are not there to provide a solution to those problems. You are there to help her find a solution, or at least a way of dealing with the emotional seepage affecting her work.

It is quite possible that the reasons behind her response in meetings are indeed related to work. She may feel unappreciated or bullied or otherwise targeted. Whatever you might feel about her reasons, they are valid to her and they need to be treated with respect. If there is a work-related interpersonal relationship at the root of the problem, you may also need to become involved in addressing that issue.

If you feel utterly incapable of having this conversation, then by all means find someone who is better equipped than you – a close friend, perhaps, or a more empathetic colleague. But this is an abdication of your role and responsibility, and it says as much to her and others about you as her own behaviour. She may be unhappy, while you may be too ill-equipped to take on a managerial function which requires you to lead people.

Doctor’s prescription

Good luck with it – if you can help her through this, you’ll have a dedicated team member on whom you can rely.

Roger Delves is the director of the Ashridge Executive Masters in Management and an adjunct professor at the Hult International Business School. He is the co-author of The Top 50 Management Dilemmas: Fast Solutions to Everyday Challenges. Email him at for advice on any work issues.