Tag: work

How to help a colleague who bursts into tears

My emotions occasionally leak out my eyes. As such, I was grateful for this compassionate defense of those who have, at one time or another, cried at work. Thank you, Amy Gallo and HBR Blog Network.

So how do you help a colleague who starts crying at work? Action points from Gallo’s article:


    • Act like you would in a social situation — be comforting and solicitous
    • Keep your responses simple and focused on the employee
    • Make a specific plan for handling the situation going forward


    • Judge people who bring emotions to work — it’s not unprofessional to cry, it’s human
    • Try to get your employee to stop crying — offer a tissue and let the tears flow
    • Push a person to tell you what’s happening if he doesn’t want to talk about it

“Don’t judge people who bring emotions to work” is especially important to me. A former colleague and I once discussed the problem of being tear-prone. We find it frustrating, not because of the rare tears (though they can be embarrassing), but because of the reactions that tears might evoke—particularly from managers. Who wants to be perceived as weak, or unable to handle pressure, because of something that’s normal?

Plus, I know that I’ve been the most helpful to colleagues when I’ve tuned in to their feelings—and the least helpful when I’ve not paid attention. As Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, an associate professor of management and organization at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, says in the article, “We don’t leave our humanity at the office door.”

So to all of you humans out there, I offer my tissue box. Take as many as you need. And I hope you’ll share one with me, should the occasion arise.

An equation for opportunity

A current Nissan commercial advertises the fastest way to a promotion:

3-sentence summary: An executive has a big meeting. His car reservation has fallen through, but our hero, Daniel from Accounts, offers the executive a ride. In the course of the 33-second commercial, Daniel goes from being just some guy in Accounts to being VP of Accounts.

While the commercial is partly a comedy of errors, its basic narrative makes an excellent point: Daniel wins a great opportunity (he joins the executive for the meeting, after all) because he is available and because he has the qualifications to take advantage of his availability. It’s part of the allure of the commercial, an it’s a reminder that’s always in season.

Here’s how it breaks down.

Available + Qualified = Opportunity

  • Available. Daniel is willing and able to help out when the need arises. He doesn’t even need to be asked—he volunteers. If we want tomorrow to be different than today, we have to show up. We have to demonstrate that we’re willing to assist.
  • Qualified. Daniel has not only the bare minimum of what it takes to help out (a car), but ample qualifications (a really great car, so the commercial tells us). He makes an impression. We can build our own qualifications by obtaining relevant certifications, gaining competence with a new software program, or pursuing whatever else may be pertinent to our particular aspirations and circumstances.
  • Opportunity. Together, Daniel’s availability and his qualifications produce a singular opportunity. Note, however, that he saw the opportunity and took action. We, too, owe it to ourselves to keep our eyes open and be ready to act.

I had many encounters with this equation while working for a nonprofit, where the budget didn’t make many allowances for, well, anything. For me, that meant an abundance of opportunities. I was available, I was willing to work hard, and I was capable of doing the work well. In only a few years, I went from intern to magazine editor.

Because this isn’t math, it’s not a guarantee. We may not get that one opportunity that we want more than any other, but we have a much greater chance of obtaining it if we’re available and qualified. And who knows what unexpected adventures we might have along the way?

Strategic planning meets last-minute project

So your supervisor announces an urgent project. Or maybe a deadline that was weeks away has been moved up. Or Plan A fell through and you suddenly need to put together a viable Plan B.

Rush projects can throw a team into a frenzied whirlwind of activity. Sometimes they’re unavoidable. Other times they might be a result of poor planning or management.

On the receiving end, our brains kick into overdrive. Our driving thought is, “Must get this done now!” (Okay, that may not be our only thought.) Some people work well in high-pressure situations. Others get a little twitchy. But both still have a job to do.

I’ve worked through a lot of last-minute projects. What I’ve learned is that the most important step is to stop, breathe, and make a plan. Here are a few tips:

  1. Verify expectations. Make sure you know, as best as possible, what the task at hand is and what the expectations are. What’s the deadline, and is there any leeway? What are the project’s scope and parameters? Once you nail down these details as best you can, you’ll have an easier time delivering the desired results.
  2. Identify your teammates and collaborators. Know who needs to contribute to or complete each of the tasks you’ve identified. (If you’re a one-man show, this part is easy.) Make sure they know, too.
  3. Break it down. Divide the task into smaller, more manageable portions. If it’s a report, determine what sections need to be completed. If it’s a new web directory, determine what individual pages need to be built, who’s providing content, and so forth. I worked on a team that was writing, in a short amount of time, about 40 emails for a campaign. Before we got started, we identified the subject of each of those 40+ emails so there wouldn’t be confusion or overlap as we moved forward. Plus, we created a shared document that allowed all of use to view and track our progress.
  4. Set priorities. What task needs the most lead time? What can you take care of while you’re waiting to hear from a colleague? And, speaking of colleagues—if there’s a portion of the project that only Bob in IT can complete, then getting in touch with him and verifying his availability is a high priority. If Jan in finance tends to have a tight schedule, then you may want to reach out to her immediately—if only to alert her to the fact that you’ll be coming to her for assistance. This is a way to show your colleagues that you value their time.
  5. Communicate. When the pressure’s on, does communication break down? I like to keep the key players informed on a project’s progress, and I like to support and encourage my colleagues.
  6. Stay flexible. When I was a magazine editor, I shared a graphic designer with another department, and I sometimes had to rework my own priorities in order to prevent a bottleneck further down the line. Breaking news stories, contributors who missed their deadlines, the unexpected departure of a colleague—all of these can really mess with production if you’re not prepared to devise a back-up plan and/or re-prioritize ASAP.

Strategic planning is essential for any project. It’s especially important to remember, though, in those high-pressure situations where it’s easy to overlook the basics in the race to the finish line.

One more thing—strive to keep a positive attitude. “Urgent” requests can be stressful on many levels, but we don’t help ourselves when we let aggravation get the better of us.

What smart people don’t think to do

I know this because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve done it myself. Thus, this post is half observation, half public service announcement.

So what do even smart people not always think to do?

They don’t think to look up the answer when…

  • they don’t know how to do something
  • they don’t know what a word, phrase, or concept means
  • they don’t know where to find something

How can I make such a claim in the Internet age, when PewInternet reports that 91% of adult Internet users in the U.S. use a search engine to find information?

Let me relate a quick story.

When I worked with master’s and doctoral students at a research university, I was taken aback by how many of them didn’t know how to solve their MS Word formatting issues (something they needed to do in order to submit their theses or dissertations). After all, these students are researchers. They’re problem-solvers. They’re smart.

It got me thinking—how often do we compartmentalize our knowledge and problem-solving methods and simply don’t think of transferring those methods to another task or region of knowledge? How often do we settle for not knowing—even when we need that knowledge to do our work well?

Or even—how often do we not realize how easy-to-find the answer actually is?

It’s not a matter of being stupid—it’s a matter of making the connection. Of developing the habit of looking up those questions that we might not quite know how to phrase. Of risking a little extra time on the chance of getting the results we want.

In the case of the grad students’ MS Word formatting issues, a quick google is likely to turn up the answer—even if they don’t know quite what keyword to use (e.g., “hanging indent”). It’s amazing the number of tutorials that other users post online to help people out.

Of course, we all know that one’s presence on the Internet is no guarantee of one’s expertise or integrity (as this State Farm® “French model” commercial cheerfully illustrates. “They can’t put anything on the Internet that’s not true.” Cracks me up every time). Caveat emptor.

So, the moral of the story?

Be the smart person you are. Look it up.