How is it that crying in the office can be considered unprofessional when yelling at someone is acceptable behavior?  In some professions, yelling is actually expected and yellers are seen as powerful and effective.  This seems absurd.

I cried at work this week.  And I’m admitting it to all of you.  I felt overwhelmed by all the organizational change occurring and, after a tense meeting, shed a few tears while debriefing with a trusted colleague.

I have very mixed feelings about crying at work – as a woman, as a professional, and as a manager.  Let’s be clear here.  I’m not talking about whining.  I do not have mixed feelings about whining – there is no place for whining at work.  I’m also not talking about falling down on the ground, nose running, hysterical sobbing.  I’m talking about welling up, voice breaking, or tears that you can talk through.

I’m not sure where I picked up negative messages about crying in the workplace, but there are a few that seem to have stuck:

  • Crying makes you seem weak.
  • Crying is stereotypically female – which is a bad thing.
  • People won’t take you seriously if you cry

When I wrote this down, I realized how ludicrous these messages were and how they didn’t really align with my beliefs about women, humanity, OR the workplace.  And, in fact, there are a number of really GOOD reasons to cry at work:

Crying when angry.  When I’m angry, I can feel the tears coming.  It’s a completely automatic physical reaction to anger.  Some people turn red in the face or neck.  I well up.  I have always beat myself up over this “show of weakness,” but I’m thinking I ought to just own it and use it as a tool.  At times, it’s good to have a poker face, but wearing your heart on your sleeve – or dripping down your face – can force important discussions that would otherwise be avoided if the reaction weren’t so obvoius.

Crying when overwhelmed.  Sometime work can be overwhelming.  Tears are a sign that it’s time to let off some steam.  If you open your inbox and there are too many emails to deal with, your phone is ringing off the hook, and you forgot your lunch, maybe the tears are a sign that you need to take a deep breath and do something nice for yourself.

Crying when truly moved.  If you are a leader in an organization, remember that there are moments when it is important to show emotion.  If there is a major accomplishment, severe disappointment, personal tragedy, or powerful impact story, it’s always appropriate to show real emotion.  And showing real emotion makes you a powerful human and a powerful leader.  If you DIDN’T cry at appropriate moments, I’d wonder whether you really cared.   When hearing a colleague talk about how his personal experience as a veteran led him to the work he does – and his voice broke – it made him believable and authentic.  I remembered his story.  And I’m sure his audience did as well.

Crying can also be used as a tactic.  Especially given our culture’s discomfort with it.  I’m personally not a huge fan of this, because I think it plays into negative cultural beliefs about women.  Using crying as a tactic also won’t work on all managers – especially ones that understand crying to be a natural human emotion.

That being said, if tears authentically flow, sometimes it’s good not to try to hold them back.  For example, if you are getting fired or laid off.  My executive coach tells me that the most powerful time to negotiate terms is the termination meeting itself, and most managers who are terminating employees feel REALLY bad about it.  So if you find yourself crying while being told that you no longer have a job – just go with it – and then ask for more severance.

All in all, I believe that crying is a natural human response to lots of normal things that happen in the workplace.  You don’t need to dwell on it, but you also don’t need to hide it.  And you certainly don’t need to be ashamed of it.  A few tears won’t hold you back; they may actually help make you a more accessible manager, colleague, and friend.