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I cried at work. Now what?

A guide for managers and individual contributors on how to handle an unfortunately awkward situation

Your neck feels hot and your face is flushed. You can’t speak in a normal tone or at a typical pace. Your voice becomes shaky and uneven. You take several breaths to try to combat it. But, as your eyes well up, you know the inevitable truth…

You are about to cry. At work. In front of your manager.

Damnit.

I admit I’ve cried at work. I find the moment I try to curb myself from crying is when the tears flow harder. I’m also an ugly crier. I require at least 15 minutes in a bathroom stall before I can muster up the courage to sit at my desk. And even then, my crimson face and puffy eyes are a dead giveaway.

Speaking from experience, as both a manager and individual contributor, below are my recommendations for how recover and move on:

If you cried:

Yes, it’s awkward, but get over it. You just cried during your 10 am meeting with your manager. The worst thing you can do is recoil for the day from embarrassment. Take a moment then jump right back into your to-do list. You can’t control other people’s reactions; you can only control your actions. So instead, prioritize finishing that project that’s been lingering. Focus on what will actually impact your performance at work… the work.

Address it. While you will want to ignore that it happened, at some point, you will have to address it with your manager. Bring it up proactively and use it as an opportunity to showcase your strength and maturity to handle a difficult, awkward situation. Turn this lowlight into an advantage to highlight your professionalism.

Know it’s not the end of the world. You are human and it happens. Don’t spiral. Fight the scaries. If you are good at what you do, a little crying won’t matter. Realize this one instance will not define you and divert your energy into the things that actually matter.

If you were cried to:

Give them breathing room. As a manager, you may feel responsible and want to fix it right away. While it can be tempting to immediately take them aside, you risk more tears if you push the conversation too soon. Some will want to talk about it, some will need time to process. Your job is to listen when your team member is ready.

Follow up. Check-in with them during your next 1:1. Most likely your team member will profusely apologize with embarrassment over their reaction. Have a real dialogue, reassure them that it’s okay and let them know you are there if they ever need to talk.

Don’t bring it up again. Once you’ve address it, ignore it and move on. Don’t bring it up as a proof point against them. Chances are, they are beating themselves up for it – you don’t need to contribute to it.

Just remember, crying is a natural reaction to fear, sadness, frustration, etc. Don’t let it define you. If you focus on being the best you can be, no one will care about a few tears. 

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