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When It’s Okay To Cry At Work (And When It Isn’t)

Crying can make you look either sincere and committed or just immature. You just have to know the difference.

When It’s Okay To Cry At Work (And When It Isn’t)
[Photo: Flick user Marco]

We’ve all been there. The mortifying prickle of tears, the overwhelming urge to sniffle, the inevitable, panicked thought: “Oh no, I can’t believe this is happening.”

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Most of us tend to see crying at work as embarrassing, awkward, and a sign of weakness. And it can be particularly unnerving for professional women, who worry that showing they’re hurt, frustrated, or upset will confirm negative stereotypes that many women already face in the workplace.

But crying at work doesn’t always mean destroying your professional persona. As five business leaders told me recently, there are situations when it can actually be productive, even when there there are other times when it’s better to save your tears for later. Here’s how to tell the difference.

Crying Because You Care

“I spend most of my waking hours with coworkers, and I don’t have the desire or energy to put up a wall around my emotions, positive or negative,” says Do-Hee Kim, product designer at True&Co. and Dartmouth art school graduate. “I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve cried at work, as have all my girlfriends this past year. Showing my emotions has led to more empathy and trust with the members of my team.”

Deena Varshavskaya, founder and CEO of Wanelo, a digital mall listing over 30 million products from 350,000 stores, has always believed in being passionate about her work. In her opinion, tears are occasionally proof of that genuine, personal investment.

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“I support crying at work when it’s connected to personal growth,” she says. “If you are looking for a job you love, work has to be personal. And I want that for my team. When work is that personal, you have true ups and downs and real breakthroughs, especially when you let go of your fears and really start taking risks with your career.”

Offering An Ear And A Tissue

Good bosses often recognize this. Carter McLelland, former Chief Administrative Officer of Morgan Stanley and now chairman of USAdvisors, a boutique advisory firm, puts it bluntly: “I dont hire assholes. Why? I want employees to feel safe and comfortable enough to be themselves.”

He believes that this approach leads to fewer crying incidents overall. When they do happen, they’re “good tears,” and the product of a safe environment that encourages honest conversations between boss and team.

When confronted by a tearful team member, a good manager breaks out the tissues and holds back judgement during that vulnerable moment. She recognizes that confidences and fears are being shared and knows she earns your trust by taking the time to understand you.

Cry When It Starts To Get Real

Sometimes, tears act as a bridge, creating connections in unexpected but authentic ways. I once interviewed a candidate who broke down and cried 20 minutes into our interview. What followed was an extraordinarily deep and honest conversation about personal and professional risk-taking, including a moving account of how she left her life behind to move to San Francisco and redefine her path.

When you have a profound realization about yourself and you’re sharing it for the first time with a stranger, crying can be the natural, honest thing to do. It would almost be disconcerting if there weren’t a strong display of emotion in situations like these. Instead of hurting her chances of getting the job, the candidate impressed us with her emotional maturity and passed with flying colors into the next phase of interviews.

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Fight Back Tears Of Frustration

But just because crying can sometimes be productive doesn’t mean you should dissolve into tears whenever things don’t go your way. Crying out of frustration not only shows immaturity, it alienates you from your coworkers by forestalling the productive conversation you should be having in order to resolve the problem at hand.

Ask yourself: Are you sucking energy out of the room by crying? Did you just bring everyone down?

“Crying because your coworkers aren’t listening is a bad reason–but it happens,” a five-time CTO I spoke with admits. “In one specific case, the product manager was leading a meeting full of engineers and she cried in front of the group. Her job was to secure buy-in from the engineers. The crying didn’t help her cause, and her reputation suffered.”

Don’t Cry Because You Feel Sorry For Yourself

Needless to say, criticism can be hard to take, and it sometimes leads to tears. Learn to differentiate between the tears that come with a profound realization about yourself, and that come from an inability to handle negative feedback.

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“We, as women, often tend to translate any type of criticism at work into a reflection of our self-worth,” says Deb Podberesky, an adviser and executive coach who built a successful 20-year career at Gap, Inc., most recently as executive vice president, general manager of Old Navy. “What if we were able to better look at feedback objectively and separate our feelings of worth from our performance in that one moment?”

Responding tearfully to criticism of your work is almost an admittance of failure–not only does it suggest you can’t quite separate the personal from the practical, it shows you’re more fixated on what you got wrong than on getting it right.

It takes practice and a strong effort of will, but try to cultivate the patience to respond constructively. Resist the impulse to cry, and channel that negative energy into problem-solving. Try to step back from the situation and ask good questions about how you can improve your performance. Don’t waste time beating yourself up. And if you still feel the tears welling up, there’s no shame in letting them rip at home.

Making it okay to be ourselves and share genuine emotions at work starts with making crying a little less taboo–at least in some circumstances. So let’s talk about it. Share your best (or worst) crying-at-work experiences, and their positive or negative outcomes, in the comments below.

Michelle Lam is the founder of the innovative, data-driven bra retailer True&Co. Before transforming the world of women’s undergarments, Lam previously worked at Boston Consulting Group, Microsoft Corporate Strategy, and Bain Capital Ventures as its first female principal. Follow Michelle on Twitter at @michelleklam.

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