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So, you cried in front of your boss and colleagues…


By Leonie Corcoran
17th Nov 2023
So, you cried in front of your boss and colleagues…

Crying in work can be embarrassing, but it’s also a sign you care. Here’s advice on what to do if you get weepy in the office.

I can’t remember the first time it happened. I can’t even remember every time it’s happened. But I know I have cried in work. There have been projects that went awry after hours of late nights and early mornings; there have been team members losing their sh*t and casting wildly to blame someone for something; there have been lost contracts; there have been shocking phone calls that brought bad news about a friend or family member (I specifically remember not crying when I got a call to say my first horse had died. I sat in shock until I stepped into the bathroom and crumpled). Yes, I’ve certainly cried in work. More than once.

One of my most vivid memories of tears in the office isn’t even my own. I went to the bathroom – there were two cubicles in the ladies toilets – and I could hear quiet sobs. I did not want to intrude so I busied myself turning taps on and off, leaving, and coming back five minutes later when she hadn’t emerged yet. Those sobs were from a young colleague whose name was left off the credits for a podcast she was producing, despite her stellar job and unpaid hours of work. She was annoyed at seemingly being taken for granted and frustrated that her work was not being credited, as well as feeling she had no one to advocate for her (no better place than the bathrooms to find a willing advocate as it turns out!). And she was upset, upset at the injustice of it.

The average woman cries psychic tears between 30 and 64 times a year

Maybe you too have shed a tear in the office. Perhaps it was after you made an error on a piece of work that was only realised too late or a performance review that didn’t go as planned, or when you received unexpected bad news. There are many occasions which result in tears and not all are linked with grief or loss. Many people also cry when they feel angry, frustrated, anxious or deeply passionate about something. The woman who I mentioned above, well her tears were a combination of a lot of these things – anger, frustration, a deep commitment to a project and a perceived loss of respect that was impacting her sense of identity.

In his book Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears, Tom Lutz explains that reflex tears help rinse out irritants, basal tears keep our corneas from drying out, and psychic tears spill from both positive and negative emotional states. According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, the average woman cries psychic tears between 30 and 64 times a year. The average man cries psychic tears between six and 17 times a year. During a single crying episode, men tend to cry for between two and four minutes, and women cry for about six minutes. Crying turns into sobbing for women in 65% of cases, compared to just 6% for men.

None of us are at our best when we are emotionally hijacked

Given these numbers, it’s no surprise that women cry at work more often than men. Most of us would like to think that tears are accepted in the workplace – they are, after all, completely natural. However, in many corporate cultures crying is still regarded as a no-no. I think Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an expert on gender and workplace issues, put it succinctly when she wrote “Crying … is just one of a menu of communication blunders that, in a mere instant, can suck the executive presence right out of you”.

Thankfully, Sylvia wrote this almost 10 years ago and cultures have changed, but it’s still useful to know how to deal with tears and to come back with strength and professionalism – whether that is in the office or as you turn off your camera to regain your composure on Zoom. So, with companies facing record rates of burnout, let’s get started…

Be compassionate

Yes, we’re starting with that old chestnut – kindness. Be kind to yourself. Refrain from harsh self-criticism that will only intensify your feelings of shame. Instead, remind yourself that this is just one moment and one moment does not define you as a person or as a professional.

Remind yourself that emotions are normal and are expected in the workplace. When leveraged correctly, emotions are in fact a superpower that is starting to be recognised. Crying at work may not have been your proudest moment, but your emotions also serve to help you make better decisions, build relationships and empathise with others. So, be kind to yourself.

Give yourself the evidence

If you need the hard facts, check the research. Research shows that people are 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.

Give yourself space

None of us are at our best when we are emotionally hijacked. So, when you feel the tears come, ask for a pause. You can simply say, “I am feeling quite overwhelmed right now and need to take five minutes so I can fully participate in this conversation/meeting”. Take those five minutes to give yourself space – to step out of the room or turn your camera off. It is scientifically proven that a quick change of scenery and a few deep breaths can quickly diffuse heightened emotional reactions. As you breathe in, count for one and two beats and add an extra beat to the out-breath (i.e. one, two, three). This stimulates the vagus nerve directly positively impacting your capacity to self-regulate and to connect with others.

Emotion regulation is advocated to be an important factor for effective leadership and 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. Showing an ability to recognise your need for space and diplomatically requesting it signals self-management and emotional intelligence.

Address it courageously

Though your first instinct may be to apologise, try to avoid this. Apologising for being “overly emotional” or making others uncomfortable diminishes yourself and you are also making potentially false interpretations. Alongside this, trying to push any emotions down is like trying to keep an inflated beachball under the water – it’s pretty hard and it takes a lot of energy. So it is 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 an emotional reaction” or “As you can see, this has taken me by surprise and I am feeling some emotion around this.” This can be a time to request a break in the conversation. Studies also show that employees who attribute tears to passion are viewed as more competent and promotable.

The last word

To shift the focus to your competency and professionalism after shedding a tear, bring some attention to creating a positive impression in your very next interaction. Keep your focus and your words solution-focused and forward-looking. For example, you could say:

  • I 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. I’d like to review my workload with you and determine what can be delegated or eliminated for the time being.

Make a plan

Crying can happen as a result of being caught off guard and not knowing how to process your feelings in the moment. For people who relate as being a highly sensitive person (HSP), which is 15-20% of the population, this is especially relevant. What can help is to arm yourself with strategies in advance to deal with the fearful reaction that may be behind your tears. Find a breathing technique that works for you; try tapping; or keep something in your hand for distraction – a stress ball, fidget spinner or pen can help. Another strategy is to keep an ice-cold glass of water nearby. To lower your temperature, which rises with fear, drink as you feel tears coming on and it will also help to get rid of the lump at the back of your throat.

Seek support

Crying at work once in a while is not abnormal. But if you regularly find yourself weepy at the office and feeling overwhelmed, it could be wise to seek out the support of a therapist. If there is any workplace mistreatment or bullying, involve the appropriate parties to support you – that is their job.

Remember, we’re human and we have emotions. All of our emotions are telling us something – whether it is anger at a boundary being crossed or disappointment that an expectation has not been met. Knowing how to communicate your emotions and to manage them is often what elevates a good leader to a great leader. So use any experience you have to practise taking ownership of your feelings and emotions – this is what conveys strength and confidence that will be respected by others.