Whether you work in a “compassionate” organisation, such as health care, or a “competitive” environment, such as finance or information technology, women are often mistaken when thinking that a kind, considerate boss, or a humanistic oriented organizational culture will accept or tolerate tearful outbursts. Women and men in positions of leadership are socialized to believe that crying equals vulnerability, and that vulnerability connotes incompetence, or the inability to handle difficult situations. Right or wrong, these beliefs and attitudes about displays of emotion are slow to change.
You need to make a distinction between your organisational behaviour that governs your work and your personal behaviour. I was consulting with a large national law firm several years ago, when one of the beloved founding partners was diagnosed with cancer. The West Coast office was stricken with sadness and grief when he passed away. Partners and secretaries alike cried openly as they expressed their feelings for this individual. No one was judged negatively for doing so.
The workplace is one of those environments where tears are viewed as inappropriate and can have negative or detrimental effects on performance reviews, promotions and executive presence. In other words, tears can make you look bad and lead to a personal undermining of your sense of competence and confidence. As Lois Frankel notes in her recently released book; Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, most women know they shouldn’t cry at work, but there are times you can’t help it.
This said, you can begin to alter the crying response to many situations at work by un-learning, re-learning or strengthening your emotional and behavioural repertoire. Just as anger management workshops assist individuals in learning different and more appropriate responses to feelings of frustration, disappointment and criticism, you can also learn other ways to manage your feelings besides crying in the boss’ office.
Tips for Controlling Tears:
- Anticipate situations:
Not all situations that bring tears to your eyes are the same. Some emotionally charged encounters could be anticipated. In these instances, it is very useful to spend time rehearsing various responses with someone else. Be prepared! Use what you know about the person and situation to construct likely scenarios. Practice! If you can hear yourself responding to what you fear most, you will lessen your anxiety and defuse your fear while developing confidence that you can respond effectively.
- Identify feelings:
Women often cry without knowing why. You cry when you are actually angry. Devote some energy and time to identifying your feelings more accurately. Increase your self-awareness. The more able you are to distinguish one feeling from another, the more you will feel able to control tears. You will find yourself less overwhelmed by feelings and therefore less likely to cry.
If, as you examine your feeling anger is what you are avoiding, work at becoming more assertive, so you more accurately and appropriately express your anger. When you feel that sensation of crying start to build, take a deep breath and immediately ask yourself, “W2hat is making me cry? What do I need to resolve the situation?” Re-focus on the problem. This can help you calm down.
- Be optimistic:
Women often cry when they feel overwhelmed with work, unrecognised or anxious and fearful about their performance. If this is you, remember, crying will not make a dent in what’s really wrong. Cultivate a sense of optimism – things will generally work out. Make a list of the actual and perceived issues and problems creating your feelings. Seek out others such as a mentor, outside friend, or networking group. Use them to assist with gaining a broader perspective that includes a healthy dose of optimistic alternatives. Few things in the workplace are life and death. Back up and give yourself some perspective.
If you cry easily at the office, your personal life may be intruding on your business life. Although somewhat artificial, it is important to create and then maintain a boundary between your personal and professional worlds. Being at work can be a great diversion. Think of work as a rest stop from the personal issues! Give yourself permission to focus on something other than your personal life. Away from the office, seek support and help from friends, family, a religious leader, a psychotherapist or a family counsellor. Don’t forget that it took time for the problem to develop; it will take time to solve.
Practice not acting on a feeling you have. Focus instead on the other person. Learn to delay and restrain the sense of urgency to act on feelings. It’s a skill men have developed to a larger degree than women, and often makes them seem uncaring and unfeeling. However, women can use these skill to time the expression of their feelings, and having control over your feelings provides a wonderful sense of confidence.
Women are sensitive to perceived personal criticism. Even though criticism hurts, crying doesn’t make it hurt less, so you need to re-train yourself. Calm down. Have in your repertoire a practice that helps you calm down when you need to. A good one to cultivate is mindfulness. Focus on your breathing and utilize relaxation techniques. You can slow down reactions, gain control and think more clearly.
A complementary strategy is focusing on content instead of the criticism, or redirecting your thoughts. For example, comment on how you can get the reports done in quicker time rather than on the remark about “you’re too slow” or focus on how the negotiations are proceeding, instead of on your boss’ question about “why haven’t you booked the business?” finally, you might say to a colleague, “Mark, at the moment I’m not as concerned with your interpretation, as I am on this scheduling problem.”
- Acknowledge feelings:
If you do find yourself starting to cry when you don’t want to, acknowledge your feelings or excuse yourself. You can say, “As you can see, I feel strongly about this. Let’s focus on how we might get along better through this tough time.” Or, if you’re feeling you can’t gain control – say, “As you can see, I feel strongly about this. I’d like to take a time out and talk about it again later. I appreciate your understanding.” Then leave and book another appointment at a later time.
Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you find yourself crying. You can recoup your reputation as a composed individual by accepting that we are all human and we all can be vulnerable, yet competent professionals. The point is that in today’s competitive business environment having as many tools to increase your effectiveness also increases your likelihood of success. As the workplace continues to mature and more courageous women succeed, business will come to realize that individuals can be vulnerable and competent at the same time.