Is it OK to cry at work?
Bret Simmons had a great post yesterday on crying in the office which prompted some further reflection. I've had many clients, students and colleagues cry with me in my work as an executive coach, and I've cried myself, many times. I think it's important to create a working environment and working relationships in which it's acceptable for people to acknowledge stress, frustration, grief and the wide range of other emotions that can lead to tears. In my experience tears are almost always cathartic, and when they're expressed people feel better afterward as long as they're not stigmatized for doing so.
Bret's post critiques a video from Howdini on "How to deal with crying in the office" that Bret and I both take issue with. An author interviewed in the video states that "work is about facts, not feelings." That's a dangerously naive view of how we operate, even (especially) in the workplace, and the suggestion that we can (and should) simply repress any negative emotions we feel at work strikes me as outdated and unhelpful.
That said, the video features two women and seems to be aimed at women, with a reference to running mascara, and I think it's important to acknowledge that women can pay a greater price than men for crying at work, particularly in certain organizations and industries where crying is stigmatized, and especially in fields where women are underrepresented.
In my role as a coach, I typically encourage people to acknowledge and express their emotions more freely in ways that will support their goals. I firmly believe that the ability to do so allows us to be more effective, more influential and healthier to boot. And I'd like to support the development of a business world in which people can cry as freely as they do in my coaching practice or in my classes with graduate students.
But I also know that my clients and students need to succeed in the world as it exists today, and that includes organizations and industries where people who express emotion, particularly tears, pay a price. So with any individual client or student, I believe that it's essential to understand the context in which they work and whether they will pay a price for expressing their emotions. That doesn't mean they shouldn't cry, of course, but it does allow us to fully assess the implications of doing so, to weigh the costs and benefits, and to strike the right balance between (at one extreme) passive acceptance of an environment in which emotional expressions are taboo and (at the other extreme) a quixotic effort to resist a culture that's not going to change.
I'm reminded that in December 2006, the tears of former President George H. W. Bush made news. Bush was addressing legislators and state workers at the final leadership forum convened by his son Jeb, who was soon to leave office after two terms as governor of Florida. It was the sort of
routine political function that would ordinarily be ignored by everyone except those in attendance, but Bush's tears turned it into a national story.
Bush was describing how Jeb handled his defeat in the 1994 governor's race when he broke down. As he struggled with his emotions, he stopped speaking for a moment, and the audience burst into applause. Jeb rushed to his father's side, as shown above, comforted him with an arm around his shoulder, and handed him a bottle of water before Bush continued.
Interviewed after the forum, Bush said, "I'm the emotional one... I don't enjoy breaking up, but when you talk about somebody you love, when you get older, you do it more." So as a powerful figure, as someone discussing his son, and as an older person, Bush had the freedom to cry without fearing the repercussions--and hopefully his doing so made it more acceptable for those of us who lack his advantages.