Who believes women should sob their way to the top?

2 Jun
womaneer crying at work

Does crying at work make you more authentic? (pic: istockphoto.com/Chepko)

Lesson one of getting ahead at work, I’ve always believed, is to leave your personal life outside on the pavement and let a professional persona enter the workplace and lead the day. Never once have I believed that I should fall victim to my emotions and blub my heart out when things get too much for me.

That’s why I admit to feeling shocked when I read about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in a speech to Harvard Business School graduates telling women that it was OK to cry at work. What? Wear my heart on your sleeve? Let a career-limiting tear cascade down my managerial cheek? Won’t people think I’m hormonal, incompetent or out of control?

What Ms Sandberg said was this: “I’ve cried at work. I’ve told people I’ve cried at work. I talk about my hopes and fears and ask people about theirs. I try to be myself. Honest about my strengths and weaknesses and I encourage others to do the same. It is all professional and it is all personal, all at the very same time.”

What are the different perspectives on this?


I’ve experienced other women cry at work, and have been surprised at how seemingly strong women in leadership positions have ‘lost it’ over a work issue. I recall someone recently who’d been juggling multiple client demands, yelling at co-workers to get something done at the last minute (and they were struggling to keep up with her unreasonable deadlines and last-minuteness). This woman is always in early, always working late, and clearly her work is important to her. Yet when I was leaving the office on my way to a work do, I saw this woman red-faced and crying because it had all become too much for her. I was new to the office at the time, and stopped to ask if she was OK. She brushed off my concern at the time, but I saw that she was uncomfortable at having been ‘caught’ out crying at her desk. She hasn’t cried since, at least not since I’ve been around, but I’ve noticed that she has subsequently been subtly undermining me in meetings and shouting things across the office to me that she could have said privately – as if trying to divert the shame she feels away from her and on to me (I’m conscious of this so don’t let it worry me).

There’s a really good article on this in Forbes, Crying at Work, a Woman’s Burden, which talks about the shame women feel when they cry at work, how colleagues find crying manipulative – especially if women cry in performance appraisals – and how, “when control is everything, crying will get you alienated” and may even lose you a promotion.

Loss of male respect:

Some commentators have been outraged at Ms Sandberg’s comments, saying they do women a disservice. Jan Moir in the Daily Mail article Women blubbing at work – it’s enough to make you weep, for example, says: “Office tears are seen as professional suicide…. [They] reinforce the male belief that we are all unstable, hormonal and difficult… Big girls don’t cry — they just get on with it.”

Of course, it could be argued that not crying and just getting on with it are male traits – not to say that showing emotion is a purely female trait, but I think Ms Sandberg is arguing for a feminine way of doing business, not a suited and booted strictly play-by-men’s rules way of approaching work.

Separating the personal from the professional:

An article in The Gloss by Lindsay Cross, Not everyone needs to cry in public, puts forward a view that I support: keep crying for the bedroom and the bathroom, not the boardroom. She writes: “Most people would agree that feeling some level of emotional attachment to your work is a good thing. In general life, people tend to like those who seem open and genuine with their emotions. But there are ways to have feelings without losing control of them in the presence of random people or supervisors. Hell, walk down the hall to the bathroom like a normal person. Control yourself and then get your butt back to work.”

However, can it be considered acceptable to cry over personal issues such as bereavements? Often home stuff will spill over into the workplace – so it’s important to find ways to cope when the tears bubble up, as they undoubtedly will.

Authenticity and emotional intelligence:

While the headlines about this story have focused on the merits of crying or not crying at work, I think the real issue is about being authentic and being true to one’s values.  As Ms Sandberg said: “As we strive to be more authentic in our communication, we should also strive to be more authentic in a broader sense. I talk a lot about bringing your whole self to work – something I believe in deeply. I don’t believe we have a professional self from Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time. If you want to win hearts and minds, you have to lead with your heart as well as your mind.”

A recent survey from CareerBuilder showed that emotional intelligence (EQ) is increasingly valued over IQ, and it can help you secure a new job. It can show you’re a rounded person – just don’t cry at the interview!

So, if you’re going to cry in the office, girls, keep it real. Don’t cry crocodile tears, as co-workers will make snap judgements about you. Perhaps interpret what Ms Sandberg said metaphorically, and instead substitute ‘crying’ for ‘being authentic’.


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