Terminate tears

While we generally attribute workplace tears to women, men are also subject to strong feelings that can result in crying

boss yelling at a colleagueIn 2007, Forbes.com recounted how an employee started sobbing over his less than stellar performance review. While we generally attribute workplace tears to women, men are also subject to strong feelings that can result in crying.

Women weep, men can’t

Women generally find that crying comes more easily, if often unexpectedly, particularly in the workplace. Societal norms and socialisation play a role in that women are generally given more breadth of emotion than men.

This freedom to express one’s feelings provides a release and therefore women also express more empathy and understanding.

Crying = vulnerable

Whether you are male or female, the workplace is not generally kind to those who cry. This expression of emotion is viewed as inappropriate. Crying can have a deleterious effect on performance evaluations, promotions, and your professionalism. For women, tears often make us look inept and result in feelings of incompetence. For men, tears often suggest an inability to ‘buck up’ and be strong.

Regardless of whether your organisation is viewed as cutting edge or traditional, we often mistake a humanistic corporate culture as tolerant of tearful displays. Women and men in leadership positions generally equate crying with vulnerability, and vulnerability is a negative attribution suggesting difficulty handling tough situations. These attitudes, values and beliefs are often reinforced in management training classes and MBA programmes.

Tears can be controlled

It is therefore necessary to un-learn and re-learn emotional and behavioural responses to events and interactions that trigger tears. Just as anger management workshops help individuals learn different and more appropriate responses to feelings of criticism, unfairness, disappointment and frustration, learning other approaches to feelings that often result in tears is also possible.

Developing alternatives to crying, even when tears are associated with positive outcomes, such as closing a big sale, or winning over a difficult client, requires necessary skills that broaden and strengthen our emotional and behavioural workplace repertoires.

Tips for controlling those tears

We must distinguish between our organisational behaviour that governs work, and our personal behaviour. Even with a significant personal event, the workplace always expects its staff to contain their emotions and soldier on. Let me give you a few guidelines on this regard:

Improve your self-awareness

To find an alternate response, you must first find out the cause of your tears. Sometimes it is anger; sometimes it is joy or relief. Time and energy is well spent on identifying your feelings as accurately as possible.

By distinguishing one feeling from another, you will start to express those feelings without tears. You will be less overwhelmed and more likely to develop alternative responses.

If, for example, you are avoiding anger, work on developing better assertiveness skills. If the feelings involve hurt, and you feel the sensation to start crying, take a few deep breaths. Try asking yourself, “What exactly is causing this hurt?” or “Will crying solve the problem?” Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to resolve this situation?” This thinking activity can help calm the emotions.

Anticipate situations

Emotionally-charged encounters can often be anticipated. It is extremely useful to spend time rehearsing various responses with someone else. Preparation can lessen the emotional intensity to various situations. Knowledge about a person or of a situation can be used to create likely scenarios.

Practise! Hearing yourself respond to what you think is likely to come your way will lessen your anxiety and defuse the fear, while increasing your confidence in responding effectively.

Have an optimistic outlook

We often cry when feeling overwhelmed with work, feel unrecognised, or anxious and fearful about our performance. If this is the case for you, remember crying will not resolve or improve any of these situations. First, recall something positive that has recently occurred in which you had a part.

Second, create a list of actual and perceived issues and problems contributing to your feelings. Third, contact a mentor, trusted friend, or business coach. Use them to assist in gaining a broader perspective. Optimism comes from having alternatives.

Few things in the workplace are life and death issues. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen?” “Can I survive if this happens?” Most often things do work out.


If you find that your private life is causing overwhelming feelings and tears at work, consider your workplace a ‘safe space’; a diversion from issues causing the tears.

Compartmentalising your personal life from your business life, although artificial, can help provide a needed respite and a place to regain mastery and efficacy. We all need a break from sad, difficult and worrisome feelings that often result in uncontrolled emotions, so learning to create a space by focusing on other people or tasks at work helps restrain feelings that can lead to crying.

This is a skill men have perfected more readily than women. Remember, however, that being able to compartmentalise doesn’t mean you are unfeeling or uncaring. Rather, it means that you can have more control over your feelings leading to a sense of increased confidence.

Managing criticism

No one likes to be criticised. Both men and women are sensitive to what often feels like personal attacks from others at work. Although criticism is painful, crying doesn’t alleviate the sting. You can re-train your responses to criticism by learning ways to create a sense of calm. A good strategy is mindfulness. Practice basic breathing and relaxation techniques. This can slow down reactions to criticism, and help gain control over hurt feelings, and allow more clear thinking.

Redirecting your thoughts to the content instead of the criticism also helps manage hurt feelings. When your manager says, “This test should have been completed yesterday.” One possible response that focuses on the test and not the implied criticism might be, “I have already made sure that it will be completed by this morning.”

Recognise you’re human

Sometimes we just can’t help the tears. If it is unavoidable, say, “It is obvious I have strong feelings about this. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take this up later.” Or “As you can see, this is not a good time for me to address this issue. Give me a few minutes and we can continue our discussion.”

Go to a quiet place, collect yourself and employ one of the techniques recommended here. Do not judge yourself, as it only increases your sense of vulnerability.

Any one or a combination of these techniques will assist in effectively managing your tears in the workplace. Practising these suggestions will refine your ability to implement them when you feel like crying. Re-establishing your reputation as a composed, competent individual, occurs through accepting that we are all human.

Linda Poverny
Dr Linda Poverny,PhD, is lead consultant at Poverny & Associates, a Los Angeles-based organisational development firm specialising in improving organisational performance by maximising human potential. Her specialties include work/family integration, anger management, identity issues, and relationships.


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