Oh; tears. That’s ok. We can keep talking in the meantime.
That’s how I’ve handled tears in the office. Most of my experience comes either from my own strong emotional reactions or when working on hard stuff with our female employees. What’s been common to all the latter situations is a distinct sense of shame or regret I sense from the woman I’m talking with. I didn’t really understand this until I looked into the conventional wisdom on crying in the office and talked with some women. What I’ve discovered made me think more deeply about crying, and made me realize what a double standard exists in the workplace.
Tears indicate strong feelings. So do yelling, swearing, talking loudly, and slamming doors. Strong feelings can be an indicator of passion. At work, tears have always signaled to me that the cryer gives a shit. Since that’s one of Atomic’s value mantras, crying never struck me as particularly bothersome or problematic. It’s certainly true that I’ve been privileged to work with strong, competent, level-headed, caring women, and relatively few of them, but I’ll just go ahead and generalize anyway: in my mind, tears are usually an information radiator for caring.
The conventional wisdom for women on crying at work seems to be clear: don’t do it. The practical advice is all about either avoiding crying or minimizing its impact on your career. Oh, and don’t mind the double standard. A strong male leader who tears up at a farewell party for a close friend might actually improve his reputation. Not so the woman who succumbs to similarly strong feelings. It was an eye opener for me to read what professional women are being advised on crying.
If you’re a male leader of a company with female employees I’d suggest doing some research. Watch this Howdini video or read this research from Penn State. What you’ll find is that every woman has experienced that “terrible moment, when something goes terribly wrong”, when you feel like you might burst into tears, but “you can’t do it”. After all, work is about “facts, not feelings.” After all, no one wants to suffer the “walk of shame” from the bosses office to the bathroom with running mascara. And since everyone knows that women can control their tears, they must be manipulating a situation if they cry. Yikes!
Brittany explained the conventional wisdom to me very simply. The phrase “boys don’t cry” is a euphemism for emotions being a sign of weakness. Women are conditioned to believe that emotions don’t belong in the workplace. Ergo, if you want to be perceived as strong and be accepted in the workplace, don’t show emotions, and don’t cry. (Incredibly, we even had a mug in our office that codifies this!)
Is caring a bad thing? I don’t engage lightly with my work. I spend a lot of time working, and when I’m not working, I spend a lot of time thinking about work. Since I love what I do, and who I do it with, I’m not only ok with this, I’m delighted by it. I hope to hire people who feel similarly passionate and engaged with work. I pity the people who count the days until Friday and the years until retirement. A small company with employees who care about their work, who have a common purpose, and important social connections at work, sounds an awful lot like a big, extended family. Should we be surprised if tears happen under such circumstances? I don’t think so.
If caring isn’t a bad thing, then you can’t ban emotions from the workplace. At Atomic strong emotions exhibit themselves in our male employees through strong language, rapid speech, and raised voices. I’ve personally even stormed out of the office once (which I am a little embarrassed by, actually.) I suspect no one exhibiting strong emotions this way feels the need to walk in shame to the bathroom. If you reject the idea that emotions are irrelevant in the workplace, then you should accept a range of emotional responses.
I’m not proposing that crying is ideal. In general, letting your emotions carry you away, even though it comes from a place of dedication and caring, isn’t the best way to deal with difficult issues at work. I just don’t think tears should be viewed any more or less negatively than swearing, yelling, or stomping out.
While I reject the logic behind the conventional wisdom and advice on crying, I think it’s important to be aware that the women who work with you are likely influenced by this thinking. Making tears ok and non-stigmatizing seems like the least we can do to help a difficult situation and to fight a double standard.
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