Q: I'm a middle manager at a company in turmoil. Lately, I have been getting contradictory directives from top management, while getting no cooperation from other managers and support groups such as marketing. Higher-level managers make changes to directives I'm managing without telling me. After a morning of dealing with three separate incidents of this type, I went to a meeting in which my input was discounted by a clique of three other managers. My boss was also there. Suddenly, tears were running down my face. I stepped out to get a grip and returned several minutes later, calm, but the tears continued. It was mortifying. I don't know what to do now -- apologize? Pretend it didn't happen? My boss has not mentioned it.
A: I view stress tears -- as opposed to tears of joy or grief -- as nature's way of releasing tension when escape is impossible and a throat punch is inadvisable. I've seen them ambush otherwise stoic professionals, and they're about as easy to stop as sweating or blushing.
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Unfortunately, some workers and managers consider anyone who sheds tears at the office unprofessional, even manipulative. As I recall, Meg Ryan's character in "Courage Under Fire" dismissed that viewpoint in salty but succinct language. (Low-sodium version: "They're just tears; they mean nothing.")
In your case, tears were an understandable response to trying to function professionally when communication has broken down, leadership is scattered, and it's every manager for him- or herself. If they mean anything, it's that you need to learn new ways to perform in this dysfunctional office.
You did the right thing in the short term by stepping away from the meeting and returning calmer, if still tearful. Staying and sobbing your way through an argument would have been worse. You also could have asked to postpone the topic, in the interest of having a more productive discussion.
Your boss' silence may be the result of discomfort or indifference or sympathy, but I'd be surprised if yours were the only tears he or she has seen lately. You can regain your confidence, and your boss', by calmly asking for help managing the current chaos: "As you saw the other day, I'm getting frustrated with the conflicting directives preventing me from doing my job effectively. I need some advice on how to get consistent guidance so I can meet our goals." Focus on the turmoil -- not on your tears.
If this was a one-time event, you should be able to own it, learn from it and move on. But if you repeatedly find yourself fighting tears, it might be a sign that you need to run away -- long- or short-term -- from this circus.
• Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.