27 September 2023

Fears for tears: Why crying at work should not be a big deal

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Jeneva Patterson* says that for women, crying in a professional setting is often seen as the kiss of death, so it’s time to understand the biology behind crying to help remove the stigma.

I couldn’t stop crying.

Months of late evenings and demanding travel had cracked my professional exterior.

I tried to present my quarterly numbers while my colleagues squirmed in their seats, offered me a box of tissues, or just stared.

My boss abruptly ended the meeting.

My colleagues quickly evacuated the room.

I was left alone in the conference room, crumpled tissues in hand.

For women, crying in a professional setting is often seen as the kiss of death:

  • “Stop crying! Someone will see you.”
  • “Quick, run to the ladies’ room!”

These are just two versions of similar warnings I’ve heard throughout my career.

But it’s not just me.

Female friends and colleagues have told me they too have been told to shut down the waterworks.

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.”

Most of the women I spoke with about this explain that to cry in front of colleagues, especially male peers or bosses, ranks as one of the most humiliating professional experiences.

But times and corporate culture are both changing.

Could crying have a less negative stigma if leaders embraced it as natural?

To answer that, we need to understand more about the biological nature of crying and some key differences between the sexes.

Humans produce tears for different reasons.

Reflex tears help rinse out irritants, basal tears keep our corneas from drying out, and psychic tears spill from both positive and negative emotions.

According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, the average woman cries psychic tears between 30 and 64 times a year, and the average man, between six and 17 times a year.

During a single crying episode, men tend to cry for between two and four minutes, and women cry for about six minutes.

Crying turns into sobbing for women in 65 per cent of cases, compared with just 6 per cent for men.

Given these numbers, it’s no surprise that women cry at work more often than men.

Most corporate cultures, built and directed by men who cry less frequently, do not accommodate these percentages.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an expert on gender and workplace issues, writes: “Crying … is just one of a menu of communication blunders that, in a mere instant, can suck the executive presence right out of you.”

An organisation’s culture is most often established, normalised, and reinforced by its leaders.

Leaders are most effective when they show vulnerability and acknowledge their mistakes.

If leaders are in charge of creating a culture of inclusivity, their work includes getting more women into higher-level positions.

And since crying is a natural part of women’s biology, a new attitude about crying must be part of that same effort.

Regardless of gender, leaders need to be trained on how to normalise 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.

Rather, they will be viewed as being authentic while helping to create an even more inclusive workplace culture.

So, if you cry at work, do one of the following:

  1. Own your tears.

If you’re not embarrassed about crying others won’t be embarrassed either.

Take a breath.

Say something like, “As you can see I have strong emotions about this topic because of how much I value our work.”

  1. Laugh.

There’s nothing that makes you and everyone else feel more comfortable than laughing together.

If you manage to laugh through your tears you can say, “I guess you can see I care a lot about this.”

If you begin sobbing, excuse yourself, and leave the room.

But when you come back or the next time you’re with that group bring it up again and talk about it transparently following numbers 1 and 2 above.

And if you are a leader and someone on your team cries, try these strategies:

  • Openly acknowledge that crying is a natural, autonomic process. This normalises crying as a healthy behaviour. You can say, “Obviously many of us feel strongly about this. It makes me feel like crying too!”
  • Share an example with your colleagues of when you cried at work. You’ll model that being vulnerable is okay, which increases levels of trust and safety and gives implicit permission to someone else who might need to cry in the future. No need to wait for others to begin crying before you start.

In my case, I resolved to treat my crying as a golden opportunity to test our team’s capacity for compassion.

At the next team meeting, I asked for a minute to address this topic.

I told the group, “As you’ve started to see, when I’m really passionate about something I cry.”

“I cry when I’m stressed, or in conflict, and also when I’m gratified.”

I spoke about what I’d learned about the differences in how women and men are perceived when they cry.

I then cracked a smile and others did too.

“The next time I cry, no need to leave the room.”

“If you feel like it, please feel free to cry along with me.”

* Jeneva Patterson is a senior faculty member at the Centre for Creative Leadership in Brussels, Belgium.

This article first appeared at hbr.org.

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