It’s okay to cry at work

Culture  Leadership
16 December, 2019

Authentic leaders should treat crying as a natural expression of strong emotion – not a shameful secret

During a recent catch-up with one of our leaders, he was talking about the stressful situation that he was dealing with. As he spoke, he began feeling very emotional and broke down. His tears provided me a much deeper perspective of the challenges that he was facing and strengthened my resolve to find ways to support him better. Had he not expressed himself this way, I perhaps would not have recognised the gravity of the situation. I was thankful that he felt open enough with me to show his feelings.

Traditionally, crying at work has been a big “no”. Leaders are meant to be tough and unflappable – while crying is generally seen as a “soft” behaviour.

Over the last decade, more and more people have started to realise that crying doesn’t indicate weakness – it just means you’re human. In fact, showing vulnerability can help you be a more authentic leader and connect more closely with your team. People want to work with someone who is real and relatable.

So, this week, my message focuses on why we should reduce the stigma around tears at the workplace. How can leaders show emotion at work, without going overboard? And how can we help our team members be vulnerable as well?

Since men have historically held leadership roles in the business world, it’s not surprising that crying is generally considered taboo at the workplace – an “unprofessional” behaviour to be avoided or hidden.

The role of gender

Men and women behave differently when it comes to crying. The German Society of Ophthalmology analysed various studies and found that the average woman cries 30-64 times a year, while the average man cries 6-17 times a year. Since men have historically held leadership roles in the business world, it’s not surprising that crying is generally considered taboo at the workplace.

At the same time, research shows that people also respond differently to men and women showing strong emotion at the workplace. When male leaders cry in a professional setting (which happens less frequently), they are more likely to be celebrated for their bravery and authenticity.There are many recent examples from the political world stage – former US President Barack Obama shed tears while talking about school shootings, while Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi teared up at their electoral victories. In the arena of sports, too, plenty of male athletes cry openly without their competence being questioned.

On the other hand, female leaders are more likely to be labelled “over-sensitive”, “hysterical” or “not up to the task” if they shed tears. In her Harvard Business Review article, Why Is Crying at Work Such a Big Deal?, Jeneva Patterson highlights the reality of corporate life:

It’s a familiar narrative for women who cry at work: Escape to bathroom. Grab toilet paper. Wipe eyes. Blow nose. Take deep breath and sashay back into the conference rooms, banquet halls, auditoriums and hallways. Act as if we really did just have to use the facilities. If, however, we can’t make a pre-tears escape, we’re likely to tuck our tails between our legs: “I’m so sorry.” “Don’t worry, that will never happen again.” “You’re right, that was so unprofessional.”

The benefits of crying

Does crying actually help you feel better? Many people swear by the power of a good cry, which can have a cathartic effect and leave one feeling refreshed and uplifted. Others, however, report feeling worse. Researchers think your response may depend on your beliefs around crying – do you see it as comforting and liberating, or as embarrassing and isolating? Another point to note: crying tells people around that you need reassurance or help. If you receive this, you tend to feel better.

In Should You Add Crying to Your Self-Care Routine?, Dawn Teh highlights the rise of crying therapy sessions in Tokyo, a concept launched by Hiroki Terai:

According to Terai, many people are stressed but are unable to cry at work or in front of their families. His sessions are designed to be an outlet for people to experience emotional release…. “It’s been said that one drop of tear has the effect of relieving stress for a week,” Terai says.

However, Teh goes on to provide the following clarification from researcher Leah Sharman:

“Crying is a personal process. Whether you cry, and how often, may be related to your culture, gender, and emotional expressiveness,” writes Sharman. “Whether crying actually helps is also part of our personal judgment.”

Embracing tears

People shed tears for all kinds of reasons – because they’re sad, angry, passionate, moved or overwhelmed. These are all valid emotions, experienced by everyone. If you think about it, the freedom to express these facets of ourselves ties in naturally with our Godrej Whole Self philosophy. In the article mentioned above, Patterson highlights how a culture of inclusivity and authenticity must get comfortable with tears:

Regardless of gender, leaders need to be trained on how to normalize crying as another form of emotional expression. The message from the top needs to be that no one will lose credibility or be seen as less competent if they cry.

Here are seven ways in which leaders can embrace crying and create a space for it at the workplace:

1. Give yourself a chance to cry

As a leader, you may feel strong emotion at certain moments. Maybe you’re disappointed at the failure of a project on which everyone worked long and hard, or perhaps you’re recounting a personal story that’s close to your heart. If and when you feel the tears welling up in a professional setting, consider letting them out instead of restraining yourself or escaping the room.

2. Normalise tears

If you do cry at the workplace, treat it in a matter-of-fact way, rather than apologising or acting ashamed. Most colleagues simply won’t know how to respond to your tears, so address the experience and give them a cue. For example, you could say something like “I feel deeply affected by this because it’s so important to me” (if you cried because you’re very upset) or “I’m very grateful to be leading a team like you” (if you shed tears of joy and gratitude).

3. Keep a check on intensity

People like authenticity in leaders – however, they also expect them to exercise a reasonable degree of self-control. So, while crying in front of your team is okay, falling apart isn’t. If you feel yourself approaching the sobbing stage, excuse yourself and let go in private or with a trusted peer.

4. Avoid petty crying

Reserve public displays of emotion for meaningful moments. In When It’s OK for Obama (or Any Leader) to Cry, Leigh Buchanan elaborates:

Tears shed out of personal irritation or disappointment are best kept hidden. Steve Jobs often cried when thwarted in some minor goal or ambition, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography. But Jobs is unusual in the extent to which his flaws fed our fascination, especially with his famous intensity. In general, we want leaders who reflect our better angels, not our petty imps.

5. Steer clear of despair

Tears can strengthen a call to action, act as a vent to release disappointment, or facilitate a personal connection. But if you’re feeling extremely disturbed or hopeless, avoid crying in front of your team members. While leaders can and should show emotion, tears of despair can badly shake the confidence of employees and create a sense of fear and uncertainty. In such a situation, it’s better to seek the company of a trusted fellow leader.

6. Support team members

Vulnerability is a two-way street. Good leaders also need to create a culture in which people can express their own feelings safely. So, if a team member begins to cry during a meeting, don’t respond with shock or dismissiveness. Instead, try what Patterson recommends:

Openly acknowledge that crying is a natural, autonomic process. This normalizes crying as a healthy behavior. You can say, “Obviously many of us feel strongly about this. It makes me feel like crying too!”

7. Uncover the cause

If you notice a team member weeping in a corner, don’t turn away and leave them to it. Extend an empathetic ear to find out what’s going on, and a helping hand if required. Sometimes people cry simply because they’re frustrated or sad in the moment, which is likely to pass quickly. Other times, a deeper work-related problem might need to be resolved. Managers must build enough trust for their team members to confide in them without worrying about hurting their credibility.

So, when we was last time you cried at work? Or wanted to, but held your tears back? How can we create a culture where people are able to be vulnerable? And what we can do to build this level of trust and openness with each other?


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