“And then they burst into tears!” … on crying in business

Martina Weinberger on September 1, 2015

“And then they burst into tears!”

This was the desperate statement of a participant of a workshop I ran about unconscious bias and the difficulty of getting more women to even want to have a career. The manager claimed that things are so much more complex with his female staff, “they demand more feedback, want more interim check-ins, to see whether they are ‘on track’ , etc. But worst of all, “they burst into tears“ was his pained outcry.

In my coaching practice I have noticed that male managers in particular find crying women hard to bear, they react with a mixture of guilt and incredulity. Does the crying person simply not have what it takes, or even worse, is she manipulative, seeking to get what she wants this way?

On the other hand I meet people (usually women) who did break into tears in front of clients, leaders or colleagues. Typically, they feel intense shame and are in deep despair. They simply want to vanish, to not have to go back there ever again. They also tend to worry that they just ruined what looked like a promising career.

Why so much emotion about so little water?

It seems to be the loss of control that is implied by tears which reduce all sides to feeling profoundly uncomfortable. And whilst other behaviours that show loss of control, like shouting, slamming doors etc. are not really the cleanest way to career advancement, they seem to be less of a derailer than – what is after all – pretty harmless water, leaking from someone’s eyes.

People cry for many different reasons,

all to do with emotion, but quite a large range of emotions. It can be distress, hurt, anger, embarrassment, joy, a feeling of loss, , observing others being shamed… to name but a few.

  • In one of my first jobs, I had to give a presentation to 25 senior leaders, presenting customer satisfaction data. The data was bad, lousy really, it was customer dissatisfaction data and it was not what people wanted to hear! Rather than entering a discussion of what to do to improve the situation, it became a heated debate of why the data MUST be wrong. The level of anger and frustration I felt during this meeting kept rising, and just when I was about to burst out, telling people in very clear terms how stupid I thought they all were, I realised that this might not be a wise move, so the bottled up anger released itself instead in a flood of tears.
  • One of my current coachees came to me with the goal of getting over her “crying habit, when she felt she was being criticised”. When I asked her about what was going on, she realised, whilst she had always been rather sensitive, the problem had manifested itself over the last 6 months. When she separated from her husband, becoming a single mom, in the middle of working on her executive MBA, whilst holding down a senior leadership role far away from her own family, she felt for the first time completely overwhelmed. Do we really wonder why she might burst into tears at times? It seems to be a “simple case” of too much, right now. But she is unforgiving to herself, worried that on top of all her other “failures”, the tears will now also derail her professional life. Where she works, people function. Full stop. They cope. Full stop. They are always ready for more. Exclamation mark!

So can we agree, that people cry for different reasons and that it is really just another form of expressing emotion? Science tells us that tears help us to release toxins and shed stress hormones, so they actually flush out some of the stress we experience. So, physiologically, tears are much preferable to ulcers and all sorts of other stress induced health problems.

But despite the “normality” of crying, it is considered far from “normal” in the business world. Crying is akin to betraying weakness and/or showing a lack of self-control. It is the least acceptable form of showing emotion. Most likely, because the business world is run by people who, growing up, have been repeatedly told some variation of “big boys don’t cry”. And hence have learned to tough it out… Also, I believe the idea of “making a woman cry”, is something a “chivalrous man” does not do and is yet another taboo. Hence the double despair many male managers feel, when one of their (female) staff cries. They almost “need” to discount the other person as weak or not “up to it”.

So, with more women arriving in the workplace, with more people who have been socialised differently, people who have, on average, not learned to express strong emotions and anger in the more masculine (and hence business acceptable) ways, like shouting, grunting, throwing stuff and doors shut etc. What to do?

If you are on the “receiving end” of tears…

Ask yourself: is it a fairly regular “occurrence”? Do people around you break into tears (fairly) regularly? If so, this might be just the feedback you need. You will most likely need to challenge your leadership assumptions and style, you might be (inadvertently) intimidating, or hurtful. The somewhat more visible, emotional reaction of tears welling up, may well be caused by behaviour from your side that other people also find difficult – they just don’t show it.

If it is a one-off: It is still legitimate to ask yourself what you may have done to contribute to this emotional reaction and an apology might well be in order. But it might be even better to be courageous: ask what is going on. Maybe not right there and then, but a couple of hours later – you might be surprised by what you hear. Remember people react emotionally for all sorts of reasons!

In addition try to help the other person “save face”. From coaching people who were “on the crying side” of things (and also from my own experience) I can assure you: it is highly embarrassing if “it” happened to you. People tend to feel like they just blew it for good. So you might want to help the other person get beyond the shame and embarrassment.


If you are on the “crying side of things”

First and foremost: forgive yourself – it is human, you are human. There is life beyond tears! It might mean you are stressed, angry, whatever, it does not mean you are weak and incompetent.

Secondly, do not vilify people around you because “they made you cry”. This is not helpful. Realise that if there are tears, there is something there that needs to be addressed, somehow. You might need to “strategize” how you can change the environment to make it better for yourself. You could however also simply be in the wrong environment.

Thirdly, do not concentrate on avoiding “it” happening – the more you concentrate on not crying, the more it will be on the forefront of your mind. Instead

  • When you feel emotion overcoming you, concentrate on your breathing,
  • Prepare yourself with happy images something to briefly distract yourself with something positive when emotions threaten to run havoc. One of my coachees got a blackberry case with a holiday picture to stabilize herself when the going gets tough.
  • Find a different “story” to explain why people say what they say and do what they do. It is not about them being mean or tough and you being inadequate, but it might be about the “legitimacy of the concern, if not the way the concern was delivered” or a story of “how stressed the other person must feel to attack you in this way, to behave this badly, to be so rude” etc.
  • Ask for a break, excuse yourself and reschedule for a later time (and do have a hearty cry in the meantime, to get rid of some of those stress hormones.)

And last but not least – there is an upside to everything! Being able to show emotion is what allows you to connect to people, to understand what is going on within yourself and others. People who are more prone to crying are often also more prone to laughing, connecting and empathising with others and this is clearly a good thing!

I very much look forward to hearing what tips you have to add, any questions or personal stories you may have on this.

In the meantime – keep smiling