You’re making a big presentation when your boss launches into a criticism of your project in front of your coworkers. You’re caught off guard – and here come the tears. Did your professional reputation just take a hit? “People might say that crying at work is OK, but their internal responses are still negative,” reveals Dr Kimberly Elsbach, a professor of organisational behaviour. There’s an unspoken cultural bias against the crier – and this bias is especially potent towards women.
In her research, Dr Elsbach has found that “in most cases, women feel that their tears have hurt their reputation for being a leader.” But experts agree that we should challenge the stigma of crying at work.
“The sense that there’s no room for emotion in the workplace is a completely outmoded, 20th century paradigm,” explains Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace (Random House Trade; R269). “To assume the workplace is a purely rational environment denies 100% of the science of how we as human beings operate on a daily basis.”
For marketing professional Emily Veach, 33, bursting into tears in front of her manager actually had a positive impact on her everyday work life: “I’d been working all the time, and while I loved it, I got overwhelmed,” she says. “The stress built up so much that by the time I finally brought up the issue with my boss, I broke down.”
Emily was embarrassed, but her manager’s reaction was concern: they launched more frequent check-ins and additional resources. The outcome was a bestcase scenario, but often in the workplace, tears tend to make colleagues feel wildly uncomfortable. If it’s a minor thing, acknowledge it, take a deep breath and talk through it.
“Many people do this and recover well,” Dr Elsbach says. In fact, the best way to interrupt crying is to move – taking a good breath ( longer on the exhale), sliding your office chair backwards or pinching the top of your leg often stops tears, says Anne. And for
Fact Women cry more often than men, in part because our tear ducts are smaller and overflow sooner than guys’ do.
a bigger emotional outpouring, briefly stepping out of the room may be best.
Afterwards, don’t pretend that nothing happened. Follow up with a brief, acknowledging your tearful moment face-to-face with your boss, if possible, otherwise via email. Explain what got to you; a reaffirmation of your confidence can ease other people’s fears that you may not be in full control.
Don’t be ashamed, insists Anne. “This happens to everyone,” she says. “People cry. Own it, then move on.”