What to Do When We Want to Cry at Work

Crying woman
Crying woman

At times work is frustrating, we get feedback that is inelegantly put, we feel attacked personally (in contrast to the suggestion all leadership books offer to criticize the content of work, not the person) and sometimes we are embarrassed when we make a mistake, or we get feedback that is spot on, but we are just tired from working hard to deliver and are upset we missed the mark. Sometimes home life is getting to us and we are at the end of our rope so hyper sensitive. All these situations can lead to women tearing up at work.

At a recent workshop I delivered on influence and executive presence, a woman wanted to know why she could not feel free to cry at work, since it is an authentic human emotion. She reasoned that it shouldn't be a stigma anymore with so many women in the workplace, and, after all, it is just expressing an emotion. Many women believe if the reason they have to hold back from crying at work is because it makes men uncomfortable -- men need to adjust and realize it is simply the way some women react. Women go to tears when men go to anger as an emotional response, in part because boys are taught it is not OK to cry at an early age and girls are not taught the same thing, so there are socialization issues that impact us as adults. And many men believe women use tears in a manipulative way, in part because some women do, and in part because men don't know what to do in response to a woman when she is crying so they feel out of control (and that can feel manipulative to some).

My recommendation to women reinforces the research done in this study. I agree women need to limit crying at work only when speaking about situations such as critical illness, death, or catastrophe (not project related but world related like 911, or a devastating typhoon.) We are human beings and when explaining that you have to leave or take a call because your family member is in the hospital with a critical condition, a death in the family, or dealing with a crisis like fire/flood/hurricane etc. that impacts you, or those you know, it is fine to show emotion including tears.

We can educate our partners/spouses about our going to tears quickly, what that means, and how to support us, but we can't do that with all of the people who work with us. They don't have the level of commitment to us that is required to work through each of our underlying issues, nor should they in a work environment.

So what about those of us who cry easily? What can we do about our natural reactions at work? How do we retrain ourselves without sacrificing authenticity? If you find yourself tearing up at hearing feedback, or being criticized/challenged in a meeting with a group of people, someone is unkind to you at work, or your project is derailed or cancelled, there are some strategies that you may want to use to avoid public tears. Because those tears, while simply a natural reaction for you, are undermining your authority, your ability to influence, and perception of you as a leader.

A few things I've used (as someone who was a natural crier for years) that have worked for me include:

Rather then focusing on what is happening to me, I put myself in the other person's shoes -- it is always challenging to deliver difficult messages. If someone is spending the time 1:1 giving me feedback either formally or informally as in a performance review, I focus on acknowledging him or her. I think about how much courage it takes to give negative or constructive feedback, and I start by thanking them. This gives me a way to shift the focus from me to the person giving the feedback and can be done even when the feedback is not delivered in the most elegant or thoughtful way.

Next, I ask for time to reflect on what was shared. "I appreciate your feedback and want to take some time to reflect on it before I respond so that I can be thoughtful and thorough in my response. Can we meet again on "X" date and time to follow up?" This gives you time to get out of the situation before you tear up and gather facts as needed to put together a thoughtful response. It also does not force you to deal with the feedback on the spot while you are emotional. When you do meet again you will be prepared, so you will be more in control with notes on facts and data if you want to dispute the feedback, or ready to accept it with a plan for correction if you accept it (or some combination of both.)

When the urge to cry happens in a group setting, sometimes the only option is to excuse yourself and get out of the situation to regain your composure. Sit up straight; hold on for just a few moments until you can get outside of the situation. You can say in as powerful a voice as possible, "I will be back in a few minutes and address this, please excuse me." Or if you are in charge and losing control of the room say "I want to address this but we all need a break right now. We will take 5 minutes and get back to this when we return." Then immediately get up, walk right out of the room with your head held high and go directly to the ladies room or your office if it is private. Not ideal, but if you need to cry, go into the ladies room and cry in private, then use a power pose for two minutes (check Amy Cuddy's TedTalk) to regain composure. While you may be tempted to cry on the shoulder or vent to a friend during this time, you are better off getting yourself in control by doing a power pose and regaining your power. While venting or getting support is wonderful, it will not likely stop the flow of tears and that is what you need in the moment, so save support for a bit later and you will have more clarity about what you need then as well.

The goal of these strategies is to focus on a being centered, strong, and confident influential leader. Coming from this position, your focus is on being thoughtful about the person giving feedback or causing you to have the upset. Help colleagues get better at feedback and collaboration, keep it about the topic or issue -- if not personal, it makes it easier to disconnect the emotional hooks. And, shed fewer tears.

Holding back from crying does not mean you are inauthentic, it means you are thoughtful about when and where to express emotion. You can be an emphatic leader who demonstrates strong emotional intelligence and feel more in control over your emotions. Given women continue to have multiple barriers to advancement, let's remove this one. If you have a strategy that works, share it, we all can support one another in advancing.