Last Saturday, I ran into one of my work friends at the airport. The minute he said, “Hello there,” I started to sob and couldn’t say anything back. He looked at me with what seemed to be a combination of horror and confusion until I was mercifully saved by my younger daughter, who put the expression of emotion in context: “My sister is going back to Madrid, and my mom is really sad.” Tears erupted again that night during the final convent scene in Les Miserables, and it took me a bit of time and a lot of Kleenex to get myself together enough to stand up and leave the theater.
While we don’t begrudge the tears of people who cry at airports and sad movies, many of us believe that we should never cry at work because doing so demonstrates weaknesses or a lack of control or professionalism. I disagree and was happy to see a new research study that supports my position. In her work, It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace, Anne Kreamer found that 41 percent of women have cried at work and 9 percent of men have shed tears. And the good news? Expressing this emotion has not harmed their careers.
My own perspective is that there is a right time to cry and a wrong time to cry and that too much crying and fake crying can both lead to trouble. I once had an employee who cried every time I provided feedback—and that just got annoying. I’ve also been in tense situations with people who have been busted for doing very bad things and have found myself highly agitated by their attempt to use fake crying while uttering, “This is not the man I am. What will I tell my family?,” hoping I will cut them some slack.
Genuine emotion, however, can be hugely powerful. I once met with a man who was known for being harsh and hard on others to review the results of his 360-degree evaluation report. The feedback revealed that everyone thought he was brilliant, but nobody liked him. As that became clear, tears started to flow. He had no idea, and was crushed to learn that people thought he was so heartless. Had he maintained his normal impervious facade and taken the feedback stoically, the meeting might not have been terribly productive. However, his willingness to express emotion indicated that he was serious about turning things around, and that made me all the more committed to helping him to do that.
More recently, I observed a very demanding, rarely expressive woman stop in the middle of a speech as she was accepting an award. My first thought was, “Oh, $#%*, her assistant must have misnumbered the pages. There is going to be hell to pay after this.” And then, after a few moments, with a catch in her voice, she continued, while crying! For the first time, she became likable.
Have you ever cried at work? What do you think about people who do?