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Is It Ever Okay to Cry at Work? (And What to Do When You Do)

Career Advice |

Thank god for Bea. In the middle of the night, she carried on typing as I sat weeping buckets by her side. The partner had torn up every one of my charts hours before. He expected a brand new document at 9am and here I was, exhausted, raw, and for the moment, entirely useless.

Fast forward. This time, my client started the waterworks—and I joined in. We were meeting with her publisher and editor to discuss the magazine’s turnaround. In an outburst, the editor roared at us in the voice of Orson Welles (I swear) and stormed out of his own office. I was a partner and not supposed to cry, but emotions were running high.

It happened again in front of the most powerful partners of our firm. Newly elected to senior partner, I was invited to present a growth vision for our firm. I did so with a passion for transformation. Naturally, the partners responded with their own attack. One man spat out, “Why did we elect you? I’m regretting that decision now.” Despite my best efforts not to cry, tears appeared; luckily, I wear glasses.

Whether or not you admit to crying at work yourself, you know that it happens daily (to someone). I’m not writing about hysterics here, and I’m not referring to those individuals who cry at the drop of a hat. Think about your own moments—usually in the Ladies, but often in front of colleagues—when tears suddenly appear. Some cry in anger, or frustration, or from fear, or when we are deeply happy or sad. Is it wrong? If so, why do so many women cry at work?

For starters, crying is not always a bad thing. In some cases, it is the absolute best thing you might do. I watched my daughter graduate from college recently. The Dean, in the midst of a speech summarizing four years living with these students, stopped to wipe away sudden tears. Confessing deep emotion, she took a moment to breathe deeply before resuming. Students will remember that pause, and the genuine love behind her tears, for years.

But in moments like those I shouted out above, crying is the sign that an Amygdala Hijack has (already) happened. The stakes are high, the situation is very difficult, and habitual patterns are triggered in us. Our fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in. Try as you might, you erupt with waterworks or fireworks. Like gremlins, they refuse to be controlled. And well-intended advice (‘do not cry at work’) is no help at all.

Please don’t think of this cry as ‘bad’—crying is neither good nor bad. In an upset situation where your emotional survival is threatened, your brain’s amygdala rushes to defend. It sends out cortisol and adrenaline so your body can respond quickly. This all happens in a flash–before you can think about the best action to take. No wonder you’re not at your best.

But with reflection, deliberate choice, and lots of practice, you can untangle your entrenched patterns of behavior and avoid that hijack in the first place. There are three steps to what we call Reframing:

Gain self-awareness of your own patterns in upset situations. Through reflection, see yourself without judgment, but with appreciation for your underlying needs or fears. In my examples, angry authority figures triggered my fear of feeling powerless and as I froze, tears spilled. At the moment of upset, I was six years old again.

Learn to pause, and in that moment, step outside of your own movie to view yourself and others. I learned that when I am hijacked, time seems to slow down; I am not at my most creative, or most responsive, or even a tiny bit curious. My brain shuts down completely. The result? I make myself feel powerless. These days, I can sense a hijack coming and I pause, deliberately curious about where the other person is coming from.

Choose to experience the challenge as a learning experience. This step is the hardest, but when you recognize that you have a choice, you gain freedom from your fears and needs. Make the shift from not being at choice (“this is happening to me!”) to choosing (“I am in charge of my own experience”).  In my three examples, I felt like the victim at the time. Taking responsibility, I am ready to learn.

Want to move beyond outbursts at work? For all the yellers and weepers out there, a few simple actions:

Start by getting curious about yourself. Gather up a few of these zinger moments that still resonate for you – you can feel the heat rising just thinking about them. Explore what in you is being triggered, and dig deeper to uncover your underlying fear or unmet need. As you explore, you will undoubtedly find your own contribution to the outcome you feared.

In the middle of your next upset, choose to pause. You can do this by feeling your physical presence and reminding yourself that you are safe. You can take a deep breath in. You can smile. And best of all, you can ask questions. Try asking yourself this one: ‘What do I really want to create here?’ A question takes you back to your intention. Sometimes that is enough to reframe your response.

Learn more on managing these trigger situations at work in Joanna’s book, Centered Leadership.

Photo: Atsushi Yamada / Taxi Japan / Getty Images

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careeradvice emotions office environment feeling for others

6 Comments

Great Article!!

2y

This is complicated, especially for women. It has happened to me before out of sheer anger or frustration (not sadness) when a higher-up has been either a bully or totally disrespectful/unprofessional toward me and I felt unsafe or unsure on how to respond without putting my job at risk. Yes, I was pissed at myself for crying but excused myself to the ladies room but I am also human and have to honor my feelings. Luckily I was able to confide in a female exec about the situation and I was fully heard and supported. I know that not every woman on the job has that luxury, however.

2y

I broke down in front of my manager last Monday - it was the very first time when I have cried at work. It is really hard to control your tears sometimes. I think that managers who do criticize honestly needs a reality check. Yes we do have to be professional and yes we do need to keep our emotions in check. However we're all human at the end of the day!

2y

I've struggled with tears in professional settings, and appreciate this article and the recommended book.

2y

Great article. Years ago I read that when a woman cries (in a business setting) it's out of frustration or anger.

2y

This was a great article! First time I've received practical and thoughtful advice. It really is impossible to control your tears, and this article gets that

2y
joanna barsh

Joanna Barsh, celebrated author and McKinsey & Company director emeritus, launched Centered Leadership as a development program in 2008. Her second book, Centered Leadership – just released – encapsulates that program. Joanna introduces us to some of the tools, exercises, and practices that you’ll find in Connecting, one the Centered Leadership’s five dimensions.