Turning Off the Waterworks

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Can crying cost you money?

Dawn, a young worker who spoke on condition that her last name not be used, thinks it's hurting her bank account. But she's not sure what to do about it.

She admits she's too emotional at work, especially when her boss gives her negative feedback. "I come off cool and professional . . . but really I'm not. When I get the slightest bit of criticism at those once-a-year, one-on-one reviews, all of my energy is redirected into holding back tears. I don't know why it happens, but I lose focus."

And it's hampering her ability to negotiate for the compensation she thinks she deserves. "When they redid the pay structure this January, my salary had to be moved just to make the minimum," she wrote in a recent e-mail. She's making less than other workers who she feels are less qualified. "I need to be with it in case I am low-balled" at the next review.

It's a problem a lot of women appear to have, at least early in their careers before they've fully adjusted to professional life.

Yes, I know it's a stereotype, but men, it seems, are more likely to punch a wall or hurl invectives out of frustration than cry. That sort of behavior is unprofessional -- and even scary -- but it doesn't carry the same pathetic connotations that crying does in our culture.

We know such emotional outbursts aren't professional, but it's not always easy to prevent them.

C.P., a 31-year-old worker at a local nonprofit organization who spoke on condition that only her initials be used, said it's a problem she's dealt with for years. "I cry at the drop of a hat, especially when I'm upset or frustrated in a discussion with someone."

In her current job, she has cried only once in the year she has been there, "but there have been many times where I've really had to struggle to stay composed, and can definitely relate to feeling like a 12-year-old."

So what's an emotional gal to do?

Leslie Williams, president of LeaderShift Consulting, an executive coaching firm in West Virginia, said there's no one-size-fits-all answer. "Everyone has different triggers." How best to handle the situation also depends on whether the cause is something at work or a personal issue.

If it's a work issue, as in Dawn's case, mental and physical preparation are key, Williams said.

She advised that Dawn prepare mentally by working out an agenda for the review before she walks into the meeting. "Write down your strengths, using specific examples of projects. Make your successes tangible," Williams said. That way, if you get flustered, there will be something concrete to turn your attention to.

On the physical side, try to relax as much as possible before the meeting. Deep breathing can help, as can exercise, such as a brisk walk. "You want to walk in strong, grounded and clear" before a meeting you know will be stressful, Williams said.

If something in your personal life is making you cry, consider being open about the situation. "People get teary faster when they try to act like nothing is going on," she said. It's better to let your boss and co-workers know you're working through a difficult time than to be "some weirdo who's crying at work."

And don't assume that people will automatically think less of you; what really matters is what you're doing to take care of the problem. Williams said her father died when she was just 30, and she was in tears "all the time," including at work. She went to her boss and explained what was going on. "What I thought was going to be an incredible weakness wasn't." Because she handled the situation responsibly, she said, she actually gained his respect.

But be professional about how you explain yourself, she warned. Your co-workers just need to know the general idea, not the details. "You don't have to come in and tell the whole sob story."

Finally, accept that some crying at work may be inevitable. (Crying after a loved one has died, for example, is completely normal. And surely no one faults the White House's Dana Perino for crying when she announced that her boss, Tony Snow, had learned that his cancer had returned.) When it happens, make a run for the ladies' room so no one sees you.

But, in the long run, work on channeling your sobs of frustration into more appropriate -- and effective -- expressions. "Women have to find a way to be angry that has credibility and power to it," Williams said. "As I get better at expressing my anger, I have to worry less and less about tears."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company