When the Tears Flow at Work

Depressed woman with hands over her face. Crying.
Depressed woman with hands over her face. Crying.

Life at work can be difficult. The office, whether corporate or a spare closet at home, is where we spend much of our time. Work is the cause of many of our frustrations. And yet, showing tears as a form of emotion is generally not seen as a powerful move in business.

Sometimes feedback is given in a way that sparks our emotion. Maybe you're extremely tired and feeling the stress of deadlines. Perhaps life at home already has you emotionally charged and you get that one look from a co-worker (sympathetic, worried, concerned, annoyed) and the floodgates open.

A client I worked with recently left his start-up. His partnership went south due to disagreements on directions of the vision which lead to some fairly loud fights. He had accumulated a significant amount of debt. His spouse was on edge with the long hours and his unavailability to be present for the little amount of time he was home. He had recently chosen to miss the family reunion in order to give the company one last shot  --  and it failed anyway.

On the phone he told me he decided to walk away from the business... then silence. When I said "you know, tears are just fine with me..." he broke into sobs. I could hear him fighting to control his breath. Then came the stream of apologies. "I'm sorry you have to hear a man cry. I'm sorry I can't hold it together. I'm so sorry to be such a mess."

And yes. It really was a man.

But women seem to bear the brunt of stigma for tears at work. Men often go to anger as the emotional response where women tend towards tears. While not always the case, it's usually because men are taught throughout life that crying is not ok. They develop a reflex to holds back tears. Women are usually taught that anger is not okay so tend to cry to release.

In either case, tears are a response in our emotionally constipated culture that make most people uncomfortable. Tears are not the career limiting move they used to be, but they are still seen as a sign of weakness that influential people do not exhibit.

I was a natural crier for years. As soon as the tears started, the voice in my head started shouting "You're weak! You have no confidence! You are pathetic! Stop trying to manipulate!" And can you imagine if someone else yelled that at you? You'd probably cry even harder. "I'll give you something to cry about..."

I have learned some skills and strategies that have helped me at work and I share them below. However, it's also good to note that if someone tells me there is no room for tears, I can easily tell them there is no room for me and my brilliance either.

Whether you are the giver or receiver of sudden tears you need to know it's OK. Men and women will cry at work. We deal with it. Here's how.

First -- know why you're crying.


When you can identify why the tears have started, it's a little easier to come up with a plan. So, first acknowledge to yourself why you are crying.

Did your project just collapse? Did you miss deadlines? Are you frustrated with a colleague? Was feedback given in an abrupt manner? Is it something at home that has you emotionally charged? Are you over-tired? Did you just have a heated argument?

The more you can be specific, the easier time you will have at figuring out your next step.

After you understand it, acknowledge it to others.

If you found yourself tearing up in a meeting because you are so frustrated with the way things are going, simply say "Excuse me. I'm going to take a 5 minute break because I'm really frustrated." Then walk out and find a place for the tears to flow.

If you are in a one-on-one meeting and received feedback that started the crying say something like "Thank you for the feedback. It means a lot to me because it obviously struck a nerve. I'd like time to reflect before speaking anymore. Can we continue this at X time or date? or in X min?"

If you are pissed off say "This is what it looks like when I'm angry. I want to stay with the conversation so just look past the tears because I want to resolve this." If you can't stay with the conversation you can say "This is what it looks like when I'm angry. I'm taking 5 minutes to myself and I want to continue."

If it's something at home say "Hey, we just put my dog down and I'm feeling a little raw..." or "Thank you for sitting with me. I have some issues going on at home and the emotion is still effecting me at work..." (and no, you don't need to explain what's happening at home. In fact, try not to!)

Concentrate on the other person or people.

A simple way to get out of your head and heart that are swirling with emotions is to put yourself in the other persons shoes. If you think about how how much courage it takes to give negative or constructive feedback, you can start by thanking the person. It gives you a way to shift the focus away from your reaction and turn the energy into something a little more positive. This can be done even when the feedback was given in a way that was hurtful or not helpful at all.

No need to apologize.

When you do find yourself crying at the workplace, simply excuse yourself and find a safe place to let go. Head to your office, the car or join the line of tears in the women's bathroom (sadly, I bet you won't be the only one in tears in a stall!)

There is no need to apologize to anyone for crying. When you do apologize, it just makes more people feel awkward and not know what to do. Replace I'm sorry with "Thank you for your patience. I am really [insert feeling] about all of this and that's why I cry."

Forget about it.

Seriously. If you do cry, just do it and forget about it. Other people will soon forget, too. In fact, in some cases, crying just made you more human and likable to those around you.

Develop emotional resilience.

In the long run, crying at work is not the best solution. It does make people uncomfortable and can limit your options for influence, promotion and leadership. If you are a natural crier like I was, look for workshops or personal development opportunities in which you learn to express yourself in new ways.

Being a leader and person of influence does take a certain emotional resilience and "thick skin". The more public a figure you are, the thicker your skin will need to become. That means leaders and people of influence take more personal development workshops that people who are satisfied with waking up and going to work and setting their emotions in a big box.

I have been told there is no room for tears in business. That's just B.S.! It's just a matter of how we hold ourselves if tears do arise.

Heather Furby is a business strategist and leadership coach who will help you bring human back to your success. For an experience in new perspectives developing emotional resilience and becoming the cause of your success, check out the new leadership summits at www.CauseAndSuccess.com.