I can't even describe the problem I'm having with someone in my team without getting frustrated. She cries under pressure and it's so predictable (and such a conversation stopper) that I've started dreaming up excuses to get her out. She is a good worker who always gets things done on time but, if things don't go her way, she bursts into tears and runs out of the room. If she's really upset, she goes home for the rest of the day. I feel quite bullied, to be honest, as if I am walking on eggshells around a potential explosion. Aren't we supposed to be grown-ups at work and leave the emotional antics at home?
Ah, the tears of women at work. I've often thought of women's toilets as wailing halls, and indulged in a fair amount of private wailing at work myself over the years. Women do tend to cry more than men: it's a matter of hormones and conditioning. Vive la difference – and, yes, grown-ups do cry at work, but some of them are babies about it.
I am highly in favour of crying at work, either in front of others or in a private corner. Taking time out with a sympathetic colleague after a difficult performance review and having a quiet sob into your tea; receiving bad personal news and getting weepy in front of someone you supervise; bursting into tears in front of your branch head, as I once did, while explaining you will need bereavement leave. All of these I think of as Good Crying. The only thing to be gained from the pretence that you're invulnerable is an ulcer and a reputation for being no fun to work with. Good Crying invites kindness, and heaven knows we all need more of that.
Bad Crying? Bad Crying seeks rescue. Responding to feedback by crying into your supervisor's frightened face. Interrupting a supervisor's attempt to task you by crying. Trying to sway a workplace conflict in your favour by crying. The only things to be gained from crying in the middle of a work-related negotiation with a colleague or supervisor is the sympathy of the unwise and a later job reference that calls your emotional maturity into question. Even the very self-aware will find it hard to be clear about their motivations for crying when their performance is on the line. As a general rule, I would counsel against crying in front of your supervisor or direct report on a work-related matter unless you know each other very well.
In her best-selling book Lean In, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg admits to crying on Mark Zuckerberg's shoulder when she found out one of her colleagues was spreading mean and untrue rumours about her. In my view, that's Good Crying. For a minute, I liked Zuckerberg better (though the moment passed quickly). In the same situation, Bad Crying would come from a stance of wishing to manipulate a supervisor into punishing the rumour-monger. It has a different flavour, and an aftertaste of disrespect for the person on the other end of the behaviour.
Bad Crying (and running out of the room is an escalation of the same dynamic) is motivated by a sense of helplessness. It rewards its owner by tempting the people around her to back off from a discussion she wishes to avoid. You might try the classic request formula: "When you [cry during work discussions], I feel [a bit thrown off my game] because [it makes me wonder whether you are serious about working on your performance]. My request is that you [ask for a break if you need to do some emotional processing and then initiate the discussion with me again later]." Kindness, not rescue.