Crying at work? Emotions matter.

Tears at work freak everybody out.

People tell us that they worry that tears at work will make them appear weak and that when someone cries in their presence they just don’t know what to do to help. Tears make us uncomfortable and while across the gender divide women report often feeling seen as overly emotional if they cry while men who cry may reap the benefit of their tears humanizing them, it is safe to say crying at work is hard. Olga Khazan wrote powerfully about and did some terrific interviews with leaders at The Atlantic in her 2016 article, Lean In to Crying at Work.

But let’s face it, people cry at work. Something stressful happens or we misstep in a way that feels humiliating and WHAMMO, the tears come. What would it take to normalize crying at work instead of letting it be a showstopper?

First, we should accept that tears are a normal expression of complex feelings. We often assume that crying equates to sadness, but in reality, tears are often correlated to feelings of “helplessness, hopelessness, and the lack of adequate behavioral responses to a problem situation,” says Ad Vingerhoets, a psychologist at Tilburg University and a leading crying researcher. As human beings, we have a limited range of ways to express  intensity of feeling and crying is one of them.

Secondly, I propose we look at tears as simply another source of data. When tears arise, it indicates that something important is going on inside of our emotional realm. Noticing this, and working to sort through the complexity of feelings and contributions usually leads to forward progress in a hard conversation or issue. Viewing tears simply as important information rather than as a shameful occurrence helps us normalize and utilize the gift of feeling.

Thirdly, tears at work, as in life, are an act of vulnerability. When we tear up or cry at work, we are showing up and being real. Dr. Brene´Brown, author and share researcher, writes that vulnerability creates connection, which is essential to our feelings of belonging. So if someone cries at work, it is an invitation for connection due to the vulnerability of authentic presence.

Fourthly, we will stop crying. Very rarely at work does a crying jag come up that goes on and on, although that is often our worst fear. Most often, tears well up and spill over momentarily, and if we press on, they pass.

And finally, tears at work are evidence that we are human beings, not machines. Leaders who “go first” with emotional honesty and transparency potently model their own essential human being-ness, paving the way for others to follow And on a team, the presence of tears may draw a group together with deeper understanding, compassion, and care for the needs and interests of one another.

We do not shame or ostracize one another at work for laughing out loud, or angrily expression frustration. Crying is simply one more very human, very real, very tender aspect of our humanity that has a place at work just like other relevant emotions.

Let’s let crying out of the closet at work. It will create more connection, more compassion, and more open-heartedness, which creates energy and optimism.

Jim Morris