Personal Growth

How to Handle It When You Get Emotional at Work, According to Science

Ask people the most embarrassing thing that could happen at work and crying will likely top many people's lists. But while crying at the office is dreaded, it's also far from rare — work can be a pressure cooker of stress, exhaustion, and interpersonal tension, after all. So what should you do if the worst happens and you burst into tears in front of your boss or colleagues? Science has the answer.

Tears Are Embarrassing, but Passion Is Admired

What's so terrifying about getting emotional at the office? Besides letting your professional mask slip to reveal the messy, complicated human being underneath, crying at work can kill your reputation for authority and control. No one wants to follow a leader that can't hold it together when the going gets tough.

"Crying ... is just one of a menu of communication blunders that, in a mere instant, can suck the executive presence right out of you," economist and author Sylvia Ann Hewlett has written.

But while tearing up can signal a lack of mental toughness, it also shows your commitment. No one cries at work when they make a mistake on their last day, after all. So the way to deal with tears at work, according to science, is to spin them not as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of passion.

Through a series of experiments, a team of business school professors from INSEAD, Cornell, Harvard, and the University of Michigan recently tested how reframing an emotional outburst as a sign of passion affected co-workers' perceptions of an emotional colleague. Whether the researchers asked volunteers to imagine someone breaking down or to recall real-life emotional outbursts, the findings were the same — tell people you're crying out of passion and they'll perceive you as more competent than if you simply ignore or apologize for the incident.

"Overall, participants preferred the rationale of passion and, on average, rated the 'passionate' employee's competency as 20 percent higher than that of the employee who offered no excuses. The next best answer was simply apologising. Even attributing the outburst to sheer emotion was better than giving no explanation," explained INSEAD professor and study co-author Elizabeth Baily Wolf on INSEAD Knowledge.

If It Works for Elon Musk ...

As Baily Wolf points out in her article, this isn't just theoretical. It's a technique that smart executives already use in the real world. "Just ask Tesla CEO Elon Musk," she writes. "At the beginning of Tesla's annual shareholder meeting earlier this month, he choked up briefly as he said, 'Thank you for buying our product. We're doing everything we can to make it as good as possible, as fast as possible.' He then added, 'This is going to sound a little cheesy, but at Tesla we build our cars with love.'" Musk, in other words, blamed his passion for his out of control emotions.

So the next time you get emotional at work, don't ignore or just apologize for it. Instead, be like Musk and cite your passion. You'll probably still be embarrassed, but your reputation as a professional will remain solid.

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For more wisdom from Sylvia Ann Hewlett, check out her book "Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Jessica Stillman August 6, 2018

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