crying

Is it ever okay to cry at the office?

January 3, 2013: 11:49 AM ET

For about one in four people (both men and women), tears are an automatic biological response to highly stressful situations. So why are they still taboo?

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I am really embarrassed to even be asking this question, but I am in a quandary here and am hoping you (or your readers) can help. A couple of weeks ago, my boss gave me my year-end evaluation and it was a disaster. He explained that, while my work is "fantastic," I'm not getting a promotion I had been counting on because I am "too emotional" to move up to the next level of management. He was referring specifically to a couple of times when I was under extreme pressure and burst into tears with other people watching.

Making matters worse, when he dropped this bombshell about the promotion on me, I teared up again. Right now, I'm the only female department head at my company, and I really hate reinforcing the old stereotypes about women being "weak" and "emotional," especially since I am not weak at all. But I have cried in stressful situations all my life. I can't seem to help it. Is there any way to fix this? —Waterworks

Dear W.: It might help a little to know that you've got plenty of company. In researching her new book, It's Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, Anne Kreamer teamed up with ad agency JWT to survey a wide range of businesspeople (of both genders) about the role of emotion where they work. Among the many interesting findings: About 25% of the working population overall is made up of people who respond to extreme stress by crying. Among women, it's 41%.

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"That's not to say that men don't cry under pressure. Of course they do," says Kreamer, who is a former executive vice president and worldwide creative director at Nickolodeon. "But there are physical differences. A man may start to tear up and then blink back his tears. Women have smaller tear ducts, so the tears are more likely to spill out onto their cheeks," where everyone can see them.

Nor is puddling up now and then necessarily a career killer. Don't believe it? Google "John Boehner crying." Nonetheless, and whatever you may think of Boehner's politics, he's certainly a success in his field.

Although showing emotion still carries a stigma in many workplaces, as you know only too well, Kreamer's research led her to believe that may be slowly changing, for three reasons. First, emotions have gained respect in just the past few years as an area of scientific inquiry. "This is really new," notes Kreamer. "We now understand the neurological and biochemical aspects of emotional responses, and how they affect every area of life, including decision-making." As a result, she says, "the old model of leaving your emotions at home and being totally logical at work is clearly just unrealistic."

It's unrealistic for another reason, too. "Culturally, we've changed," Kreamer points out. "With the 24/7 technology we have now, we have stuff coming at us from all directions all the time, so that work and home are inextricably intertwined." Turning off or tamping down our emotions when switching our attention back and forth between the two realms is a skill that many have yet to master.

But the third reason why expressions of emotion are increasingly accepted in many workplaces is probably the most compelling. "Allowing emotions to be more out in the open is good for the bottom line," Kreamer says. Her book cites numerous studies showing, among other things, that a work environment that acknowledges emotion is more conducive to creativity and innovation, and expressing greater empathy and compassion at work leads to lower turnover and less absenteeism.

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But it seems higher-ups at your company have yet to get the memo about all that, so what can you do to control your waterworks? "You need to anticipate the triggers that cause you to cry," Kreamer suggests. "When you sense one coming, get up and go to the water fountain or the coffeepot or the bathroom. Just getting up and moving around can alter your body chemistry enough to stem the tears."

She also recommends that you "find a stress reliever you can do regularly -- whatever works for you, whether it's yoga or running or meditation." Anything that lowers the overall stress level in your life should help you control your reactions to especially tough moments.

At the same time, "take a very analytical look at your list of what triggers your crying," Kreamer advises. "Analyze what underlies the emotion. What is it that makes you feel overwhelmed? Is it a difficult colleague, a lack of resources, impractical deadlines? There may be something concrete there that you can try to fix." If there is, let your boss know what it is and make it clear that you're addressing the problem. (Given his assessment of your performance as "fantastic," he may even be willing to give you a hand with it.)

Kreamer offers one further comment. "Are you sure you want to get promoted?" she asks. "Maybe that's what's stressing you." In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Kreamer made a persuasive case for having a clear idea of what success means to you, and then reaching a realistic decision about whether your current employer can offer it. Maybe if you worked somewhere else, or forged a different career path for yourself, the whole question of how to stop crying at work would be moot. Just a thought.

Talkback: Are you a member of the 25% of the population that cries easily, or do you work with someone who is? What do you do about it? Leave a comment below.

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