Harvard Business review

So, You Cried at Work

If you have ever cried at work, then you know it can feel embarrassing. You may worry about what your colleagues think of you or become concerned about how your outburst may jeopardize your professional standing. To minimize the impact of crying at work and ensure it doesn’t hurt your reputation, the author offers advice to help you bounce back with strength and professionalism: 1) reframe the impact, 2) give yourself space, 3) focus on follow up, 4) have a plan for next time, and 5) seek more help if you need it.

“Are you okay?” a stranger asked as she tapped me on the shoulder outside my company’s offices in Manhattan. I looked up at her with wet, red cheeks and wiped tears from my eyes.

Minutes before, I was in a team meeting when my boss made a derogatory comment, minimizing my professional background and training. His remark broke me — it was the last straw on top of my already-overwhelming workload. Though I wanted to push back and assert myself in the meeting, my voice cracked, and a lump formed in my throat. Fighting back the waterworks, I could only mutter, “excuse me,” as I rushed out the door and out of the view of my coworkers.

At the time, I felt profound regret and shame about my reaction. What I didn’t realize is that I was part of the 45% of professionals who have cried at work. I also count myself among the 20% of people who are highly sensitive, meaning I think and feel everything deeply. Decades of research proves that sensitivity isn’t a character weakness. Rather the trait is associated with greater processing in brain areas related to emotion, self-awareness, and vividness of experiences.

Maybe you have also shed a tear in the office, perhaps when your performance review didn’t go as planned or when you received bad news about a family member. While we typically associate crying with loss and grief, it can be a reaction to anger as well. Many people cry when they feel frustrated, anxious, or deeply passionate about and invested in their work. Over the last year, many of my coaching clients have asked how to recover from crying at work. It’s no surprise, because workers are under greater stress and facing record rates of burnout. As a result, emotions — and the likelihood of tears — are running high, even when teams are distributed. The new version of crying in the bathroom has become turning off your video to regain your composure.

If you have ever cried at work, then you know it can feel embarrassing. You may worry about what your colleagues think of you or become concerned about how your outburst may jeopardize your professional standing (especially if you’re a woman). So, what can you do to minimize the impact of crying at work and ensure it doesn’t hurt your reputation? Here’s how to bounce back with strength and professionalism.

Reframe the impact. 

Crying at work is not career-ending. Research shows that others are generally more empathetic than you might imagine. A survey of over 2,000 senior executives found that 44% of C-suite leaders believe crying is okay from time to time, and another 30% believe it has no negative effect on how you are perceived at work.

With these facts in mind, extend yourself compassion. Refrain from harsh self-criticism and judgments that will only worsen your pain. Instead, reassure yourself that one moment doesn’t define you and that difficulties are a part of life. Remind yourself that emotions are not only normal and expected in the workplace, but when leveraged correctly, they can be a superpower. While crying at work may not have been your proudest moment, your emotions have a flipside — they serve as a positive source that helps you make better decisions and empathize with others.

Give yourself space. 

You won’t be at your best if you’re emotionally hijacked. So when the waterworks set in, ask to pause the conversation. Take five minutes to compose yourself, for example, and step out of the room or turn your camera off. A quick change of scenery and a few deep breaths does wonders to quickly diffuse heightened emotional reactions.

Studies find that leaders who engage in situation modification, which involves changing your external environment to lessen the impact of your emotions, are most successful at regulating their reactions. Recognizing your need for space and diplomatically requesting it signals self-management and emotional intelligence — two indispensable leadership qualities that account for 90% of what sets high-performers apart.

Address crying courageously. 

Your first instinct may be to apologize for being “overly emotional” or making others uncomfortable. Avoid this, as it puts you in a disadvantaged position. Not only are you making potentially false interpretations, but you’re also diminishing yourself. You also want to stay away from pushing your emotions down and trying to pretend as if they are not there. As I often say, what you resist persists, that is, the longer you try to fight an emotion, the more powerful it becomes.

It’s far better to respond from a place of strength. Start by acknowledging your reaction instead of trying to hide it. You can say something like, “As you can see, I am very invested in the success of this project, which is why I’m having/had an emotional reaction.” Employees who attribute their tears to passion are viewed as more competent and promotable, according to a study.

Focus on follow up. 

The recency effect suggests that our most recent behavior is recalled best. So if you want to preserve or recover your reputation after crying at work, focus on creating a positive impression in your very next interaction. Keep your reply solution-focused and forward-looking. For example, you could say:

  • I really value our working relationship and want to make the project successful. When can we regroup and come to an agreement about how we’ll move forward?
  • Thank you for providing me with feedback today. I appreciate everything you shared and am working on action steps to implement what we discussed.
  • I had a strong reaction today because I’m overwhelmed by changing priorities at the firm. I’d like to review my workload with you and determine what can be delegated or eliminated for the time being.

Likewise, go the extra mile on your next deliverable. Delivering above and beyond the expected standard shows you’re resilient, capable, and committed.

Have a plan for next time. 

Crying often happens as a result of being caught off guard and not knowing how to process your feelings in the moment. This is especially true if you relate to being a highly sensitive person. That’s why it’s important to be armed with strategies to channel your emotions before they get the better of you.

You can access calm without shedding a tear by controlling your breathing. Before, after, or during a stressful encounter, you can try box breathing — a method used by the Navy SEALS. Try keeping an ice-cold glass of water nearby. Drink up as you feel tears coming on to your body temperature (and your fear response) and get rid of the lump at the back of your throat called the glottis. You can also displace your angst onto a small item in your hand such as a stress ball, medallion, or your pen.

Seek more help if you need it.

Crying at work once in a while is not abnormal. But if you regularly find yourself weepy at the office more often than not, then it could be wise to seek out the support of a therapist. Involve the appropriate parties if your tears are the result of bullying or other mistreatment. Take time to evaluate whether or not you’re in the work environment that will best support your growth and mental well-being.

Remember, it’s human to have emotions. What makes you a great leader is how you choose to respond and communicate when those emotional reactions do arise. If you take ownership of your feelings and reactions, it conveys strength and confidence that others will respect.

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