It’s time to change the rules about crying at work

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I’ve been writing a blog for seven years. I’ve shared the things I see as an executive team advisor, and I’ve exposed (and tried to be authentic about) the issues that I have personally struggled with as a team member and a team leader. But there’s one topic I haven’t touched with a 10 foot pole–crying.

Crying is not something that professionals are supposed to do, right!?

Well, I think it’s just about time to do away with that notion. Toss it in the heap with all the other forms of toxic masculinity that are poisoning our workplaces and leaving us all stressed to the breaking point.

If we (men, yes, but especially women) could get over our stigma about crying, and worry more about whether we’re genuinely connecting with each other, many more organizations would benefit from teams understanding each other at that deeply personal level.

So, I’m ready to weigh in. But I’m warning you, this one’s personal.

I am a crier.

No, not all the time. Not at the drop of a hat. Not a blubbering mess.

But if I am very tired AND a topic is near and dear to my heart AND I feel frustrated, you might see clear liquid welling in my eyes. When there’s enough of it, that glistening saline will overflow the banks and trickle down my cheeks, probably taking some of my black mascara with it (just to ensure you don’t miss the moment). Yes, those moist oblong blobs are tears. I am crying.

Can I just go back to that frustration point for a moment? Sure, sometimes we cry because we’re frustrated with ourselves, but if only our male counterparts understood how often we’re crying not because we’re weak, but because we’re so f*cking frustrated with how thick, infuriating, or incompetent they are!!!)

Sorry, back to my point.

Here’s what you can assume based on the fact that tears are running down my cheeks:

1. You have hit on something important and salient to me. Most likely, the issue was a surprise to me or at least how strongly I feel about it was. (FYI, if you don’t want me to cry, give me a heads up on issues over email so I can process ahead of time.)

2. There are important issues beneath the logical and rational aspects of the issue we are discussing. Something that was said triggered my feelings, probably because something I value deeply has been questioned or compromised.

Ok, that’s it. Seriously, that’s pretty much ALL you can assume based on the fact that I’m crying. (Where did your thoughts go?)

Now, importantly, here’s what you MAY NOT assume based on the fact that tears are running down my face:

  1. I am no longer able to carry on a rational conversation. Totally false. For me, I am absolutely able to carry on the conversation and my preference is to do so. The last thing I want is to: a) sweep it under the carpet; or b) have to revisit it later-ugh. No, onward. “When you’re going through hell, keep going!” (Which was apparently not a Winston Churchill quote, after all.)
  2. I am weak. Do not assume I am weak. I am strong. I’m not afraid of being vulnerable and that makes me so much stronger than all those supposedly professional people investing half their energy in maintaining a facade. Whether you are strong enough to lean into vulnerability is an open question.
  3. I am trying to manipulate you or the situation. Believe me, my preference is not for fluid to leak from my eyeballs in front of a coworker — and lord help me if it’s my boss. This is not a clever tactic to throw you off. (Incidentally, crying on command is not something most people can do. Even decent actors can’t do a believable cry.)
  4. I am passing you the problem. Nope, not that either. I will take accountability for the issue, I’m just getting some new information from my autonomous nervous system about just how much of an issue it is.

I am human. I am passionate. I am raw.

I am engaged. I care profoundly. I am connected.

I’m all in. I push hard. I get tired.

I do not have a thick skin. It is my permeability that allows me to connect, to empathize, to sense. Those are superpowers for me.

I will not be ashamed or embarrassed by any of those things. On the contrary, I am proud of them.

I would not trade them for the world for they make me who I am and make me great at what I do.

When I start to cry, I know it’s uncomfortable for you too. But don’t turn away, just sit quietly and listen. If there’s a tissue around, that might be nice. (My dry cleaner hates having to remove the mascara stains from my sleeves.) But tears aren’t radioactive and you don’t need to panic and run for the first aid kit.

You do not need to protect me. Do not coddle me. Don’t patronize me.

Just open yourself up to what you can learn as a business person from the intensity of my feelings. Was there a whole level of the issue that you were oblivious to? I’m pretty sure you’ll learn something.

Say, “Hey, this seems like an important issue. Tell me about it.” That will make me feel better and get me focused on the issue rather than on the tears.

Ask some questions to understand and then pivot me toward action. “Thanks for helping me understand that. Where do we go from here?”

And afterward, we’ll be better connected. I’ll trust you more. I’ll respect you for letting me be me. I won’t be afraid to care deeply, to be all in, to push hard. I’ll go harder.

One day, during a workout with my personal trainer, I pushed a little too hard. I got dizzy and felt like I was going to barf. I was sheepish and embarrassed at the mortifying thought of puking all over the gym floor.

He immediately told me that if I’m all in, I might barf one day–and that’s ok. In fact, he would see it as a badge of honor. Barfing would just be a normal, physiological reaction to taking my body to its limit in pursuit of high performance.

I don’t know about you, but if vomit is an acceptable price to pay for high performance, then a few tears seem like nothing! After all, they are just a normal, physiological reaction to taking my whole being to its limit in pursuit of high performance, right?!?

One more thing.

Please, please, PLEASE…if you cry at work, don’t apologize. The minute you apologize for crying at work we all take another step backward. We tell everyone that our emotions are unnatural, unprofessional, something to be ashamed of.

Instead, thank that colleague or boss who was there with you when you were crying.

“Thank you for your patience as I worked through that issue.”

“Thank you for standing by me when I got so invested in that discussion.”

“Thank you for caring about me.”

We need to shift the conversation about emotions in the workplace. Let’s start with crying, but while we’re at it, let’s do the same for displays of frustration and anger. If we’re expected to be all in, we need to learn how to deal with the emotional consequences.

I encourage you to comment below, either in support of or opposition to this position. It’s time we started communicating about it at the very least. And I urge you to share this post with someone who cries at work. We need to support each other.

To diagnose the dysfunction on your team, click here to receive my free eBook and diagnostic. For more tips and tools to help you navigate the messy people stuff at work, sign up at www.lianedavey.com. Weekly tips, tools, and advice on conflict, trust, decision making, and more.

[For interest: Lacrimation (crying) is a really cool mechanism our body uses for different purposes. It turns out the chemical composition of tears depends on the purpose they serve. Tears from cutting onions are quite different from the emotional tears I was describing. Check out microscopic images of different tears here. Also, research suggests that emotional tears help us shed hormones that might have become out of balance and also stimulate the production of endorphins, which make us feel better. So, now you know why your grandma said you just needed a “good cry.”]

Further Reading

Dealing with Negative Emotions

When Conflict get Emotional

Your Teammate is not Weird Part 2 — Emotion

Written by

NYT Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Ph.D. Organizational Psychology, Conflict Doctor

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