In de­fence of cry­ing at work.

Shed­ding tears in the of­fice is un­com­fort­able for ev­ery­one. Here’s how to get past the em­bar­rass­ment.

ELLE (Canada) - - In­sider - By Alan­nah O’Neill

marla Kaplowitz was work­ing in an en­try-level po­si­tion in ad­ver­tis­ing for a no­to­ri­ously tough boss the first (and only) time she cried at work. “My man­ager got an­gry with me for go­ing on va­ca­tion for two weeks. She said, ‘How am I sup­posed to man­age?’” re­calls Kaplowitz, who is now the CEO of me­dia agency MEC North Amer­ica. “There was this buildup—I had been work­ing hard and hadn’t been sleep­ing—and she got so up­set about some­thing that was her is­sue.” The in­ci­dent hap­pened over 25 years ago, but Kaplowitz still re­mem­bers mak­ing the mad dash from her boss’ cu­bi­cle to her own to have a cry. “I wasn’t em­bar­rassed, though,” she in­sists now. “It wasn’t a sign of weak­ness; it was just an ex­pres­sion of emo­tion.”

Since then, Kaplowitz, who man­ages over 750 peo­ple in her cur­rent role, has seen many of her co­work­ers cry, for rea­sons as di­verse as per­sonal hard­ship to re­ceiv­ing a bad per­for­mance re­view. “I al­ways tell them it’s okay, it’s nat­u­ral, it hap­pens,” she says. “But, at the same time, I don’t think any­one should make a habit of it.” h

Ac­cord­ing to Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Al­ways Per­sonal: Nav­i­gat­ing Emo­tion in the New Work­place, cry­ing in the of­fice isn’t out of the or­di­nary. For her book, she sur­veyed 818 women and 421 men; 40 per­cent ad­mit­ted to tear­ing up in a pro­fes­sional set­ting—and 9 per­cent of those were men. It even hap­pens to fa­mous, re­spected busi­ness lead­ers, like Face­book COO Sh­eryl Sand­berg (who wrote ex­ten­sively on the sub­ject in Lean In, ad­vis­ing: “Let’s ac­cept our­selves. OK, I cried, life went on.”) and Huff­in­g­ton Post founder Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton, who told For­tune mag­a­zine: “I cry a lot. I like to get it all out.”

I’ve cried in the work­place too. The first time, it was about a death in the fam­ily, but I’ve also welled up be­cause I felt over­whelmed. And I can at­test that there’s noth­ing more hor­ri­ble than that catch in the throat and burn­ing be­hind the eye­lids that sig­nal the im­mi­nent on­slaught of tears when you’re in the of­fice. I used to joke that my boss was like Oprah and even a kind in­quiry of “How are you do­ing?” at a time of emo­tional in­sta­bil­ity could trig­ger the wa­ter­works. Like Kaplowitz, I’ve made the walk of shame (in my case, from meet­ing room to bath­room stall), hop­ing des­per­ately that no one would see me—be­cause cry­ing feels like a public display of weak­ness. Af­ter­wards, I would try to com­fort my­self with the thought that, hey, it hap­pens to ev­ery­one. Right?

Kreamer says that, yes, it does hap­pen fre­quently to women, and part of the rea­son is that we are bi­o­log­i­cally pro­grammed to re­spond to mo­ments of stress with wa­ter­works. “Women pro­duce six times more pro­lactin—the hor­mone that trig­gers tears—than men do,” she ex­plains. “We are phys­i­o­log­i­cally hard-wired to cry more.” Women also have shal­lower tear ducts, which are quicker to fill up and “spill over.” In com­par­i­son, she says, when men are un­der stress, their field of view nar­rows and they be­gin to pro­duce testos­terone, an ag­gres­sion hor­mone that is thought to in­hibit cry­ing.

So while cry­ing is a nor­mal bod­ily func­tion, akin to laugh­ing while be­ing tick­led, many still con­sider it taboo. Bar­bara Cor­co­ran, an investor on the TV show Shark Tank, re­cently in­structed an emo­tional con­tes­tant to pull it to­gether. “The minute a woman cries, you’re giv­ing away your power,” she said. Cor­co­ran’s view­point fol­lows a deeply en­trenched his­tor­i­cal legacy. “When women first started go­ing to work in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers in the ’60s, the dom­i­nant or­ga­ni­za­tional norms had been es­tab­lished by men,” says Kreamer. “And it was fol­low­ing in the tra­di­tion of the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion, so sys­tems, auto­ma­tion and ra­tion­al­ity were val­ued.” She says that women felt they had to act like men in both dress and be­hav­iour in or­der to be per­ceived as vi­able play­ers in the busi­ness world and that this long-term so­cial con­di­tion­ing still has an im­pact to­day.

Kim­berly Els­bach, a pro­fes­sor of or­ga­ni­za­tional be­hav­iour at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, has been study­ing the reper­cus­sions of cry­ing in the work­place for the past three years. (“I’m a crier,” she dis­closes with a laugh. “That was part of the im­pe­tus for do­ing the re­search.”) She found that those who have shown emo­tion at work re­ported in­tense feel­ings of shame and em­bar­rass­ment. Many even told her that it had had a neg­a­tive im­pact on their ca­reer tra­jec­to­ries: Some lost out on pro­mo­tions or board seats af­ter get­ting choked up. But, she says, the big­gest prob­lem with cry­ing is how it makes other peo­ple feel: re­ally, re­ally awk­ward. “[My re­search team] col­lected a lot of data on the re­ac­tions of those who had ob­served oth­ers cry­ing,” says Els­bach. “The over­whelm­ing at­ti­tude was that criers weren’t con­sider­ate of the feel­ings of oth­ers. It was amaz­ing how of­ten they were viewed as hav­ing cried on pur­pose.” In fact, sev­eral of those who had been in the pres­ence of a h

crier re­ported feel­ing that the show of emo­tion was de­signed to ma­nip­u­late them and other ob­servers. “Yet the criers said that this was some­thing they had no con­trol over—they weren’t turn­ing it on or off,” says Els­bach. “Every one of them said they would have stopped it if they could have.”

When it hap­pened to me, I would have done any­thing to stop my tears. And maybe that’s why I felt em­pa­thetic in­stead of un­com­fort­able when a for­mer co-worker got choked up in a staff meet­ing and ex­plained that her be­havioural changes were due to prob­lems in her marriage. It’s hum­bling to be so pub­licly vul­ner­a­ble. On the oc­ca­sions that I got teary at the of­fice, it didn’t seem so bad be­cause I was work­ing at a women’s pub­li­ca­tion—an en­tirely fe­male en­vi­ron­ment. It felt like the at­mos­phere was a bit more for­giv­ing than if I were, say, bawl­ing in the board­room of a ma­jor bank. And, to their credit, my col­leagues were very kind in my mo­ments of dis­tress. But that’s not al­ways the case, says Kreamer. “Women tend to be harder on other women. They see it as a moral fail­ure,” she ex­plains. “There’s a pre­vail­ing at­ti­tude of ‘I sucked it up, and you should too.’” She adds that while most men she has stud­ied don’t like wit­ness­ing emo­tional dis­plays, they tend not to judge them as harshly. In fact, ac­cord­ing to re­search from Is­rael’s Weiz­mann In­sti­tute of Sci­ence, the smell of women’s tears ac­tu­ally causes a drop in male testos­terone lev­els.

Els­bach says that there are a few oc­ca­sions when show­ing emo­tion in a pro­fes­sional set­ting is ac­cept­able. “If you are deal­ing with per­sonal bad news, like go­ing through a di­vorce or a fam­ily mem­ber has died, you are treated fairly com­pas­sion­ately,” she says. “But if you cry dur­ing crit­i­cal feed­back or a stress­ful mo­ment like a heated meet­ing, the data con­firms you will be viewed as un­pro­fes­sional and weak.” But Marie-Hélène Bud­worth, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of hu­man-re­source man­age­ment at Toronto’s York Univer­sity, says that there isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a cor­re­la­tion be­tween show­ing emo­tion at the of­fice and be­ing pe­nal­ized pro­fes­sion­ally. “If we be­have in ways that de­crease an­other’s per­cep­tion of our com­pe­tency, there can be high con­se­quences to those be­hav­iours,” she ex­plains. “It might be em­bar­rass­ing, but cry­ing isn’t a damaging thing; it’s eas­ily for­got­ten.”

Kreamer agrees that it’s im­por­tant not to over­re­act or “dooms­day” the pos­si­ble con­se­quences. “The oc­ca­sional tear isn’t go­ing to de­rail your en­tire ca­reer,” she says. The best way to deal with jags in the of­fice, she adds, is sim­ply to re­move your­self from the sit­u­a­tion: Ac­knowl­edge that you’re feel­ing emo­tional, and take some time to re­gain your com­po­sure. “The key isn’t to pre­tend that the mo­ment didn’t hap­pen; it wasn’t a crim­i­nal act,” she says.

In fact, Kaplowitz thinks that there’s a good rea­son for the uptick in tears at work. “The way peo­ple work these days is in­tense,” she says. “They don’t get enough sleep, and they’re forced to multi-task un­der enor­mous pres­sure—it tends to build up. A cry can be a good re­lease.” And at­ti­tudes are be­gin­ning to shift in favour of show­ing emo­tion. “Things are chang­ing in the work­place,” she adds. “We are in an open and con­nected en­vi­ron­ment in a way that we didn’t used to be. With so­cial me­dia, young peo­ple are able to share every as­pect of their lives—the good, the bad and the ugly. This shar­ing ap­proach has an im­pact on how peo­ple be­have and get along.” n

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