When is the last time your emotions got the better of you at work?

I remember being in a meeting with a senior manager who consistently cut me off every time I began to speak.  It would happen in every meeting we were in, and I increasingly dreaded attending meetings with him.  In one particular meeting, after he cut me off again, I spent the rest of the meeting intently looking at the agenda, because if I made eye contact with the rest of the attendees, they would have seen the tears welling up in my eyes, and I didn’t want anyone to know how hurt I felt.

What women often want when I coach them

Very often, when I’m coaching or mentoring women in leadership positions, one of their objectives for our work together is to learn to manage their emotions at work.  But when they say “manage,” what they really mean is “hide.”  Their biggest fear is often that they’ll burst into tears, look “soft” to their bosses and colleagues, and undo all the hard work they’ve put into their leadership careers.  And so they curb their feelings when perhaps what they should be doing is listening to them.

And that was what was happening with me.

Now please hear this.  I’m not referring here to crying as a result of depression, burnout, or workplace bullying.   I’m talking about those situations where you tear up, and later chide yourself for crying in front of colleagues because you tell yourself you should have been able to handle it.

What your emotions are telling you

Author Anne Kreamer and her colleague Mark Truss, in a 2009 survey of 701 respondents, found that 41% of the women they polled had cried at work in the preceding year.

So if you’ve cried at work recently, you’re far from alone.

Whether you hide away in a washroom stall and have a cry, or whether it happens in front of other people, it can be embarrassing for you, most definitely but it’s also be a potentially compelling message that you really need to pay attention to.

Is it sadness, or is it something else?

For so many women in leadership positions, tears at work are not an indication of sadness at all.  They’re not a sign of weakness or unfitness for a leadership position either.  They don’t mean you can’t do your job, and they don’t mean you need to turn off your feelings at work to stay in control.

For many women, workplace tears are a sign of frustration and anger.

Think about it.  You don’t want to seem weak so you don’t want to cry, but it would be even WORSE, in the eyes of many women, to get really angry at work and to say what you REALLY think about things.

And that tension between feeling angry and frustrated, but not knowing how to express it, can often end in tears.

Early emotional management

If that’s rings true for you, and it will for many women, then take some time to figure out what it is that you’re angry and frustrated about.  What you’ll likely discover is that there are issues you haven’t dealt with for fear of looking bossy or mean.

For me, I wasn’t standing up for myself in that meeting, and I felt like I had no communication strategies to deal with the senior manager who consistently cut me off.  I felt helpless, and in my mind, each time he cut me off and I didn’t have a way to handle it, I would doubt my own leadership abilities.

Deal with the issue

When I swallowed my pride and met one-on-one with the senior manager to address the problem with him face to face, he was absolutely shocked …. In a good way.  It hadn’t registered with him that he was cutting me off.  He was passionate about his work, and when he had an idea he would speak it.  He apologised profusely and told me he had every respect for my work and it wouldn’t happen again.

And true to his word, future meetings with this senior manager, from that moment, were very different.  He treated me with respect, and even gave everyone in the room permission to let him know if he cut them off as he said it was a bad habit of his and he wanted to fix it.

What do your tears mean?

Consider, if you find the tears welling up at work for you, if there’s an issue that you need to address.  Perhaps, like me, you have an issue with a specific person that needs addressing, whether it’s something you deal with yourself, or if you raise it with your boss.

Perhaps you’re unclear on the outcome for a particular project you’ve been assigned, and your frustration can be managed by meeting with key stakeholders and getting more clarity.

And if the problem is stress related or bullying, escalate it in accordance with the policies of your organisation and seek assistance.

Let your tears not mean weakness.  Let them mean it’s time to take action.