Recovering from a crying episode at work by: Kimberly Farrell | HBA

Recovering from a crying episode at work by: Kimberly Farrell

By: Kimberly A. Farrell
CEO, Unlimited Performance Training®

When emotions overshadow the discussion
As my first job in industry right out of college, I was hired as a medical representative for a growing pharmaceutical company. I had big career plans. Starting from the first day on the job, I worked crazy hours that first year. I did extra district projects, won all the contests and was looking forward to my first performance review as a businesswoman. I drove to meet my boss for my first performance review. I was excited thinking I was going to receive a four out of five rating as a first year representative. I was also nervous because I did not know what to expect of the performance review process.

I knew going to the lunch meeting that I had won all the district contests that year and half of the regional contests. I knew I had top ratings on all my field visits with my manager, so I felt my expectation of a top rating was justified. My boss was a previous Army captain. He was very formal and unemotional. He came in with his brightly polished shoes and trim haircut. I liked him. He had taught me a lot. But he was also intense, direct and unyielding. He told me how the process would go and asked me to first read the review. The first thing I saw was I was not rated a ‘four’.

My rating was a 3.5 (the next best rating after a ‘four’). I was stunned. I sat there unable to read anything on the document. I fought back tears and then, I cried. He was red-faced and caught off guard. He asked me to read the report. I tried to. I was embarrassed. My boss asked why I was so upset. I said I expected a ‘four’. He told me no one ever gets a ‘four’ in their first year. The meeting went downhill from there. He was frustrated with my lack of appreciation for all he had done for me that year and the fact he had given me the highest rating he’d given out in ten years. A rating he explained, he had never given to a new hire. He was embarrassed I had cried in a public restaurant making him feel like he had done something wrong. I was embarrassed; tired from overworking and frustrated I couldn’t stop crying.

Why managing emotions is a critical success factor for leaders
When direct reports react emotionally to feedback, the person delivering the feedback has an emotional response, whether it is discernable or not. That response could lead them your manager becoming untrusting of how you will receive feedback in the future. If your bosses, colleagues and mentors consciously or unconsciously avoid difficult coaching sessions with you in the future, it will hurt your ability to perform at your best. Not having authentic and current feedback on your performance may limit your overall future performance growth. In the long run, it may stunt your career progress. 

What emotional maturity looks like at work
A few years ago, I worked with a woman who was vice president of human resources for a mid-sized pharmaceutical firm. She was a top performer and often the only woman in the room at senior level meetings. Right after the meeting where she made her first presentation to the board of directors on a key corporate initiative, she was approached by the CEO.  He told her in very specific terms how many ways her presentation was inadequate and she found herself overcome with emotion. She began to cry. He ushered her into his office and she tried unsuccessfully to regain her composure. She told him she needed to excuse herself for a moment and would be right back. He agreed. 

On her return she was calm. She sat down, explained that her tears were an involuntary response to her disappointment in her own performance, and asked that he forget she ever cried. He laughed. She laughed. The tension was relieved. She then told him that she was very interested in what he had to say about her presentation, took out her note pad and was prepared to get some key insights into how to improve on the content and delivery to the board in the future. The meeting went on uninterrupted. Their relationship remained one of mutual respect. A few years later, she took a seat among the board of directors.

What can you do if you lose emotional control at work?
At every level on the corporate ladder people lose emotional control at work. If this  happens, a damage control strategy needs to be employed. Being prepared with the four key strategies below will help you regain your composure if you ever find yourself in a challenging emotional situation at work.

Four strategies for regaining your composure

  1. Listen to what you are telling yourself
    If you are caught off guard hearing something unexpectedly negative, keep your mind from spiraling into negative thinking patterns and tell yourself:
     “This person cares about me and my performance. That is why they are sharing this difficult to deliver information with me.”
  2. Act on changing the environment
    In the scenario with the VP and the CEO above, the CEO had begun the feedback session in the hallway of the executive suite. As the recipient of professional feedback, it is in your best interest to keep it private. Ask the person who is coaching you if you could move the discussion to a private location. Suggest they come into your office, offer to move into their office or find a neutral nearby conference room. The very shift in location will buy you time to regain your composure during the transition. It will also give you a sense of control over a situation where you may initially feel out-of-control, allowing you to calm down.
  3. Self-manage
    A great strategy employed by the VP above was that she asked to excuse herself for a moment. This allowed both her and the CEO to think about ways to re-enter the dialog. If you take a quick restroom break, use your time wisely while in the ladies room. Do breathing exercises to cease the crying. Focus on thoughts that make you happy to change your mood. Refresh your make-up, try doing some ‘power-posing’ to get the right hormones flowing and then head back in to the meeting feeling more confident and refreshed.
  4. Re-boot the discussion
    Once you return refocused, announce you are ready to hear how to improve your performance. Let your coach know your response was involuntary and that you are grateful that they care enough about you and your performance to communicate with you ideas on how to improve. Thank them for their support, and patience. Ensure you take the proper steps to have the meeting end on a positive note.

The next time emotions get the best of you, remind yourself that feedback is a gift and only those stakeholders invested in your performance take the time to give it to you – so listen with gratitude. Remind yourself that the things that derail top performers are the things they don’t know they don’t know about their leadership style, which is information only known by someone other than themselves. Your career is a journey you need to manage. Emotional intelligence is part of today’s executive core competencies that impact career mobility. Utilize these key strategies anytime you need to turn a difficult emotional situation into a positive experience between you and someone worth keeping in your network.

Kimbery A. Farrell

Kimberly A. Farrell is a sought after thought-leader on the development and advancement of women in leadership across healthcare. She is the CEO of Unlimited Performance Training, Inc. a Los Angeles; CA based training company specializing in innovative leadership seminars for high potential employees. She can be reached at: or 

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