When Women Cry at Work

If you’ve ever found yourself crying at work, “this one’s for you”. I’m talking about crying (or coming to tears when you’re trying to solve a problem, negotiate for a raise, trying to compromise on workloads, etc.) Often, these tears are met with harsh consequences: diminished perceptions of competency, reduced respect, poor performance reviews, and more.

It’s important to know that most women’s communication style is to connect; and in stressful, complicated, power-ridden circumstances, we struggle with two things: fear and frustration. Fear of losing our temper, losing our “rights”, or losing respect; and frustration because we want to communicate a powerful message, and often can’t because we don’t know how to say it. I believe that this internal struggle is what triggers our crying response — in essence, the “fight, flight or freeze” syndrome.

I also believe that another reason women often “walk on the edge of tears” is because typically, women’s emotional intelligence factor trends toward empathy, meaning that we “feel” a stressful situation more than our male counterparts. However, it’s important to note that this empathy can also make us better leaders.

NEVERTHELESS — the workplace is one of those ecosystems where tears are perceived as inappropriate and unprofessional. Our tears can (and usually do) have negative or detrimental effects on how we are perceived as professionals, our performance reviews and our “promote-ability”. It doesn’t make it right that our organizational culture perceives tears as a weakness, yet it IS how they are perceived. But sometimes, we just can’t help it. I’ve done it, and many of you reading this probably have, too.

So what’s to be done? How can we “unlearn” this tearful behavior? Well, we have to learn to change two things: our communication strategy and our instinctual responses to situations. Think of it like this: You can un-learn your current menu of reactions and create a new menu of chosen responses.

I’m not telling you to become an unemotional automaton; however, I AM suggesting that you consider how to learn new and more powerful ways of communicating at work. This is an important distinction. I guarantee you that I will cry if more easily in a personal situation; however, it is rare, if ever, that I will tear up in the workplace. These are learned reactions that I’ve developed over years. If you want to learn these same skills, keep reading.

“Zink-Isms” To Learn to Control Your Tears

Know your triggers. What sets you off? Being criticized? Becoming angry? Not being able to express your ideas strongly? Not being heard? Women often cry without knowing why — but the more you know yourself and what triggers your tears, the better you will be able to anticipate (AND COUNTER) those circumstances that start the flow.

  • Being Criticized — remember, it’s easy to take criticism personally; if you know you are going to be in an environment where you are going to potentially be criticized, be prepared for it — what is a good reply? Consider acknowledging that you recognize that you have room for improvement, and that you appreciate their comments, and will take them into consideration. For example, comment on how you can get the reports in more quickly rather than on the remark about “You’re too slow.” Or focus on how the negotiations are proceeding, instead of on your boss’s question about, “Why haven’t you booked the business?
  • Becoming Angry — Often, women cry because they are angry and don’t know how to communicate their anger in a professional way. Think about WHAT you are angry about and HOW best to communicate that idea in a calm, professional way. “I am angry right now because your actions are sending me the message that you don’t value my input.”
  • Expressing Ideas — Many times, women are fearful of criticism, so they don’t share their ideas AT ALL; and when they try to share, they get frustrated and cry. In this instance, practice makes perfect. Use terms like “I think”, “I believe”, “I want” or “We should” rather than “I feel like”, “I need”, or “Maybe we should”. If YOU don’t sound like you believe in your idea, why should anyone else?
  • Frustration with Not Being Heard — In some cases, we’re working hard to have our thoughts and ideas heard and understood. When we have a sense of being ignored or dismissed, it sets up a cycle of frustration and anger that can be hard to manage.

Don’t try to hide it. If you find yourself getting emotional, your first reaction is to try to hide it. Epic Fail. I don’t know any woman who, once begun, can simply “turn off” the flow. It’s better to say something like: “As you can see, I feel very strongly about this topic. I’d like to take a moment to process my thoughts more fully and then continue in a moment. Excuse me.” At this point, you’ve bought yourself some time to compose yourself.

Get it together — discover relaxation techniques that work for you — take deep breaths, focus on the problem, consider solutions. If you need to — think about your kids, shopping, your new hairdo — WHATEVER IT TAKES to distract you long enough to compose yourself and stop the flow of tears.

Let go — I believe that a driving factor in the flow of tears is the feeling of helplessness. So — you can’t control this situation? Let it go! If you really can’t impact the outcome, then crying isn’t going to “fix” it. Step back and give yourself some perspective. Things always work out — and they will work out more effectively if you recognize which battles are worth fighting.

Finally — remember that crying at work isn’t the end of your professional career, but it can certainly impact your perception as a competent and powerful business partner, employee, etc. Is it fair? I guess that depends on your perspective, but for now, it’s the reality in which we are living. Your ability to learn to manage your emotions raises your “EMO IQ” and gives you a powerful tool in your arsenal of success techniques.


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