For weeks, work had been frustrating for Julie, a middle manager for a video-software business. The company was in a state of flux, and she felt uncertain about her job security. On top of that, she’d lately been getting mixed messages from the executives above her, resistance from her direct reports, and felt she’d been undermined by colleagues on more than one occasion. Her feelings of confusion and frustration came to a head during a Monday-morning meeting when, she told me later, her ideas and input were summarily dismissed by two other co-workers, in the presence of her boss.
“All of a sudden,” Julie remembered, “tears were just pouring down my face,” weeks of pent-up anger and confusion on display in a way that was impossible to ignore. She stepped out to regain her composure and when she thought she had, returned to the meeting. No one said a word about it. “But I thought, If people didn’t think I was a mess before, they do now,” she said.
Some of the much-ado about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, debates the Facebook CEO’s assertion that it’s OK to cry at work. Sandberg’s message: Crying happens. Emotions, after all, were developed as survival mechanisms; they’re hardwired into our biology. Rather than spending time beating ourselves up for crying, says Sandberg, we should accept the act as a part of what it means to be a human, emotional being who, by the way, doesn’t shut off at 9 a.m. when the clock starts. I agree: People tend to think that work life is different from real life when, in fact, life is life. What’s more, Americans work more and longer hours than ever before, and the lines between the professional and the personal are increasingly blurred. If home stress spills over into work, that would not be surprising.
Though society has long held the belief that crying at work is unprofessional and detrimental to one’s career, studies prove that plenty of people cry at work, to no ill effect. Research conducted by Anne Kreamer for her 2011 book It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace found that men and women at all levels of management reported crying on the job: 41 percent of women and 9 percent of men said they’d cried at work during the previous year and that it had made no difference in terms of their success. (Important to note: One reason women cry more is also due to biology. Women have six times more prolactin—a hormone related to crying—than men.)
And yet there’s still a debate over whether crying is something to embrace, or avoid at all costs. That’s because when people talk about crying at work, they mostly mean women crying at work. Corporate culture is one that’s still very much male-dominated, and many women believe they need to act like men—and yet be more likable than a man—in order to succeed. This includes not displaying signs of any “weakness,” or even “feminine emotions,” and not making other people uncomfortable. The act of crying can be perceived as all three. But what’s interesting is who’s doing the perceiving: in keeping with the notion that women are harsher on women—both at work and in their personal lives—Kreamer found that male managers reported being fine with female employees crying, while female managers were less so.
The public’s regard for crying on the job is similarly uneven: while President Obama’s teary post-election speech thanking his staff and his reaction to the Newtown tragedy were widely praised as an admirable display of humanity, the tears Hillary Clinton shed after the New Hampshire primary changed her image for the better—she found her voice, the one softened with feminine sacrifice. Apple legend Steve Jobs, meanwhile, was celebrated as a prolific crier, while John Boehner’s crying episodes have been largely mocked.
Maybe “tough” isn’t what we need from our leaders. The truth is that crying at work can be a powerful tool, even for women, if employees learn to recognize that most emotion at work stems from frustration, and not sadness. Crying in an intimate setting can help reinforce the bond and camaraderie between employees as coworkers band together to address a situation that’s upsetting to one of them. People tend to connect with what they view as an authentic display of emotion. Often, crying invokes in coworkers and employees a natural empathy and a desire to help. Tears can also be persuasive: they show that we’re deeply moved, which in turn moves our audience.
Crying at work may also foster productivity. An outburst of tears can result in a healthy and productive airing out of a situation that has long been festering. Maybe there’s some underlying tension between two employees. Maybe one or two employees seek to claim the successes of the others. Crying can be a valuable way to address something that’s bubbling beneath the surface, and that could pop up later in a more damaging way. Revealing a certain amount of emotion and upset can lead to reevaluating a situation, and initiating a productive conversation, which, in turn, may help everyone work more efficiently and successfully.
When not to cry: Tears are less effective, and possibly damaging, when they occur in large group settings or during interactions with, say, clients. For the same reasons a client doesn’t want to see his company contact get a little tipsy during a work lunch, he doesn’t want to see her cry, either. It’s not necessarily the crying itself, but the discomfort and awkwardness the crying creates. The call for empathy and togetherness that crying may inspire among coworkers doesn’t translate to the executive-client relationship. Crying also shouldn’t be used to get what you want or purposefully manipulate. Or because it’s the only way you can handle criticism. In such a situation, instead excuse yourself to use the bathroom or get a drink of water.
Julie ended up using her crying episode to initiate a dialogue within her department. Everyone at work, she found out, was similarly stressed, and in the absence of information from the company they had been taking their frustrations out on one another. “We figured out that many of us shared the same worries and anxieties, and that I wasn’t even the only one who’d cried over work—just, maybe, the most noticed,” Julie said. Instead of feeling obligated to cover up their emotions or “save face” in front of one another, Julie’s department was able to unite to be as open and communicative, and sensitive with each other as possible. “In the end, the company shut down, but we were prepared,” said Julie. “And the good news is that we hadn’t torn one another down in the process.”
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com