It’s one of the most mortifying moments of your career.
You meant to have a productive conversation with your manager/colleague/senior VP – one that truly shows who you are and all you are capable of – but as your goals for the talk quickly got away from you, your emotions took over.
There’s a lump in your throat, a hitch in your breath, and overactive tear ducts threatening to reveal you as a weakling.
You’re choked up, looking to bolt before you begin to bawl.
And then they come. Tears.
You’ve just cried at work. Now what?
Will you be seen as weak? Overly emotional? Unbalanced?
You worry you’ll be forever known as Sad Sally. But in reality, most tears at work don’t stem from sadness.
They’re born of a lethal combination of fatigue and frustration or disappointment and bitterness that isn’t otherwise expressed or actively managed.
I’ve been there. More times over the course of my career than I can count (or, thankfully, recall).
As I gained years of experience, I rarely cried at the office itself. But even a grown woman can find herself reduced to tears when an emotionally-charged conversation goes awry.
This happened most recently when, after several years of finding my work not yielding the opportunities I most wanted, I scheduled a conversation with a senior VP to see what paths I could open. He was pragmatic and honest. There were no promotions or new opportunities for me. Anywhere.
The answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear. And even as I tried to control my disappointment, he could see it on my face.
(For the record, I am a terrible poker player…)
With a wavering voice, I quickly thanked him for his time and excused myself. Seeing my developing tears, he said a very simple but human thing:
“I can see this is important to you,” he said. “Stay and let’s talk about it.”
Rather than reacting with revulsion, he was acknowledging my watering eyes came from a place of great importance.
It was an enticing offer and so it took all my resolve to do what I did next – I thanked him again and suggested we reschedule for when I could contribute in a more coherent and productive way.
I hightailed it out of there, claiming to the colleagues I saw on the way back to my desk that my sniffles were from early-onset allergies.
The rest of the day would be a total loss. I ended up at home, under the covers with a giant Tupperware container of cold lasagna, watching a 4-hour marathon of “Million Dollar Listing L.A.”
Really, it seemed the only reasonable solution at the time. And I figured it would make a good story someday. (What do you think?)
But you can only hide under the covers for so long.
The next day I regrouped, got back to work, and sent the exec a note, thanking him for his time and making light of my over-reaction, while asking for another opportunity to meet.
The outcome of that discussion was the same, but I had saved face. Or, at least I didn’t leave that meeting with tears running down my face.
If you’ve ever cried at work and then felt judged for it – even if you’re the one doing the judging – you’re not alone.
Clearly, I’ve done it. So have others. And not just women.
Men cry too.
Yes, they do. I know it because I’ve seen it.
Why do they cry?
Because they are human with real human issues.
They cry because their mother is sick. Because their wife had a miscarriage. Because they’ve lost a loved one and need to arrange for time off.
Or they are facing career disappointment. A poor review and low bonus. A feeling their work is for naught, that they continue to plug away, the pressure of being a provider upon them and they are frustrated, feeling hopeless about their future career prospects.
As the only female manager on my team, I seemed to take on a disproportionate number of these conversations. Maybe I was sought for a kind ear or that box of tissues on my desk. No one intends to cry. I’m sure they were embarrassed to have done so.
I get it… sometimes we just have so much lodged behind the barricades that it all unleashes in a tidal wave of emotion.
What do you do if you are the recipient of someone’s tears?
Just be a fellowhuman being. Offer empathy, not judgment.
Ask what they need. Ask how you can help.
Or offer that solid sentence given to me by the SVP: “I can see this is important to you. Let’s talk about it.”
Allow them to go on or leave if they see fit and acknowledge or forget it ever happened. It’s their choice.
And if you’re the one who has cried, wipe away your embarrassment. It shows we are human, capable of a depth and breadth of emotions that sometimes overwhelm us.
Give some thought as to what’s really bothering you and why. And then grab a Kleenex, take a deep breath and start again. Vulnerability won’t kill you.
If all else fails, you can always get under the covers with a giant Tupperware container of cold lasagna and watch a 4-hour marathon of “Million Dollar Listing L.A.” That worked for me.
Valerie Gordon is a long-time storyteller, an award-winning television producer, and the founder of Commander-in-She, a career and communications strategy firm. She speaks at conferences and works with corporations to help audiences and clients capitalize on the power of story for authentic leadership and career satisfaction. Her book, “Fire Your Narrator! A Storyteller’s Guide to Getting Out of Your Head and Into Your Life” explores the power of our inner stories to create our external success.