How to Cry at a Startup

All types of crazy things have happened to me on the job. A guy ran by me holding a 9mm gun at his side, I worked for a former CIA operative who told me to watch my back, a plane sprayed Malathion on me, and I was fired (twice). But I never cried at work until the day I was leading a Board of Directors meeting for a software startup a few years ago and I got a call from the veterinarian.

The vet said that he was sorry, but that our golden retriever, Cooper, was going to die on the operating table. He asked if I wanted to come say goodbye. I paused. I did not want to remember him like that, so I thanked him and said no. I picked up his ashes a week later.

I do not care if you are a man or woman, work inside or out, if you have been working for more than a decade, you have cried at work.

Most of us spend more time working than doing anything else. And bad stuff does not wait for us to get home, have dinner, and sit on the couch. I have seen colleagues break down for all types of reasons, from receiving news that a grandparent passed away to being told they needed to look for a new job.  I think it is clear that the old-fashioned sense of the workplace door as the dividing line between rational on the inside and emotional on the outside could not be more wrong.

Work is a personal endeavor and whether you are pitching a new idea, helping an angry customer, or grabbing lunch with a friend, emotion is involved and important. We cannot turn off emotions because they are hard-wired into us. They are part of our evolutionary self and originally served to flood our body with hormones if we sensed danger — a predatory animal or dangerous fire.

Even though our environment has changed, our fundamental biology remains the same. Just because in the last 100 years more of us sit at desks does not change the previous 20,000.

When I told a colleague that I was going to write this, she jokingly asked if I thought people should cry at work. Do not get me wrong — I do not think crying should be one of your quarterly objectives. But I do believe it happens for good reason, and that is ok. What we should do is learn how to express our emotions with class and accept our colleague’s tears with dignity.  Here is how:

Take a moment
When I recognized that the call was coming from the vet, I asked another executive to continue to lead the meeting. I excused myself and stepped towards the conference room door to answer the call. When I could tell it was not the news I wanted, I left the conference room. I walked outside to get a little fresh air and went to the bathroom on the way back. I wiped my eyes, splashed some cold water on my face, and headed back to the conference room. The most important thing you can do when news shocks you is to take a moment to acknowledge it.

Explain why
The team could tell I was shaken when I returned to the room. I asked everyone on the conference call for a minute, put the phone on mute, and quickly explained to the folks in my room what happened. I was able to stay engaged for the remainder of the meeting and our CTO led most of the discussion. I think more often than not, people are afraid to share what is going on. We are ashamed to be vulnerable at work and that fear makes us more fragile. If we can name our emotion and explain why we are experiencing it, we can take back some control and likely gain the support of others.

Look for patterns
Ok, so not all emotions are good at work. This step is to remind us to separate the one-off traumatic events from ongoing dysfunction. If we find that we often explode at our colleagues, belittle those who report to us, or weep when our boss tells us to correct a mistake, we need to take a hard look at ourselves. If strong emotions are consistently impacting your decisions and holding you back from your potential, you need to explain why (see above) to yourself first and others in the organization (below) who can help you.  

Seek a mentor
To ensure that your setback is temporary, seek help if you need it. Having a trusted mentor at the office is always a great idea, but during a crisis it is critical. This person can help you work through your emotions and take care of yourself as you move forward. The level of support you need depends on what you are dealing with and clearly professional counseling and medical care may also help you bounce back.

Despite the corporate expectation to check your emotions at the door, people cry at work all the time. It is time we accept that and handle it with grace.

Have you cried in the work restroom or during a review with your boss? Or have you had to try to comfort someone who is distraught?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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