Companies & Industries

How Not to Cry at Work


Yes, John Boehner got away with it. No, you can't

Posted on Harvard Business Review: January 3, 2011 12:02 PM

By now, most people have seen at least one clip of Speaker of the House to-be John Boehner shedding tears in front of the camera—on the House Floor, with Leslie Stahl on "60 minutes," talking about our failing public education system, you name it.

And perhaps you're thinking to yourself that the rules of the game have changed: perhaps it is okay to cry at work. It's not. Even though the highest-ranking congressman in the land does it, you still can't.

It is never okay to cry in your office, with your colleagues, or, god forbid, in front of your boss.

John Boehner is an anomaly. He's the exception, not the rule. There are three key differences between John Boehner and the rest of us above-average professionals looking to progress in our careers: first, he's the boss, second he's not crying about workplace issues, and third, he's old (or older, depending on where you sit).

What to Do Instead?

Admittedly, it's not crazy to think something will happen at some point that will make you want to cry. No one is immune to hurt feelings, harsh criticisms or unfair treatment. But unless you're the boss or elder statesman, you simply shouldn't lose it. Instead, when you find yourself at the end of your rope, consider the following:

A sad or unfixable fait accompli

If a dear or beloved colleague has been laid off, you've just received a less-than-stellar performance review, no one listened to your brilliant idea in morning meeting, or you're just having a bad day, you're entitled to lose it. You're just not entitled to lose it in front of others. You're going to have to take your cry elsewhere. Here are two good options:

Politely excuse yourself and then get the hell out of your office. Say something like, "I need to excuse myself for a few minutes and get some air." Or, "You know what; I'll be right back, please excuse me." And then run, don't walk, to the nearest deli or the bathroom stall downstairs.

If you can't keep it together to excuse yourself, then simply exit the building quickly and worry about explaining later. Take a walk, call a friend on your cell phone, or have yourself a good cry out of earshot of your colleagues. It's better to have to explain an abrupt exit than redeem yourself after a full on meltdown. After all, sometimes it's better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

A case of injustice

Sometimes, however, the cause of your impending melt-down is actually a rightable wrong. If someone gives you a public dressing-down or a colleague points out your innumerable failings in front of your boss, you may have grounds for action. Nonetheless, your primary goal remains the same—don't lose it in front of your colleagues.

Follow the steps above and get out of your office. Then, once you've taken a breather, regained your composure and put some time and space between yourself and the initial offense, you can revisit the situation. Ask to speak with your colleague in private and off-line--and then, with a clear head, explain why his or her treatment was unjust and offer a suggestion of how to handle such mishaps next time around:

"Aaron, I really didn't appreciate your comments yesterday in front of the team about my handling of the client. If you have an issue with the way I'm handling the account I'd be happy to discuss it in private and off-line."

As a former Vice President on Wall Street, I don't know any colleagues who didn't lose it at one point or another (sometimes often). We all knew the drill, however. We'd get out of 85 Broad as fast as we could. We'd do whatever it took not to let them see us cry and then we'd march back inside the building with our heads held high: onwards and upwards.

Provided by Harvard Business Review—Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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