There’s no Crying at Work (or is there?)

There’s no Crying at Work (or is there?) 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Last week, I wrote a couple of posts on feedback that prompted a friend to send me a note.  She asked that I add to my rant about feedback that crying is not okay at work, particularly when you are being given some feedback.  She then asked me for my opinion and advice on how to deal with criers in the workplace.  As I thought out it, I’m not as decisive on this issue.  Maybe you will have a clearer answer on this, but I am torn.

My first gut reaction is this, “There’s no crying in work.  Period.”  This is the easiest position to take, but I’m not sure it’s the right one.  We want people to care about their work.  We want people to be emotionally invested in their organizations.  When you care about something a lot, it’s natural for your emotions to come bubbling to the surface when meaningful things happen (good and bad).  So, maybe crying part of a highly engaged workplace.

Work is also a profoundly important piece of most of our lives.  We spend more time with our co-workers than we do with anyone else in our lives, even our families.  So, when the situation at work is charged with tension, pressure or drama, it can take a huge toll on us.  A number of years ago, in the first month or so after taking on a new job leading a new team, the first question my wife would ask me each day when I got home was, “Did you make anyone cry today?”  I had inherited a team with a lot of dysfunction and drama.  Most every member of the team was so wrapped up in the drama that when I got them one on one and began to ask some probing questions, they would almost inevitably begin to cry (I don’t think it was my inquisition technique, but you never know).

The thing with crying, in my opinion, is that there is an appropriate time and place for it.  But, there are times when you can’t control it.  If your emotions are left unchecked and you aren’t self-managing, you can lose control in the wrong spot.  The problem with crying in the wrong situation isn’t the crying itself, but the perception of the crying by the other people in the room.  People view crying as a sign of weakness.  It’s not right or justified, it’s just a reality.  So, crying at work can be a career killer, unfortunately.

From a manager or leader perspective, my reaction to an employee in front of me who’s crying involves three responses.  The first response is cynical and only lasts a moment.  I ask myself, “Are they trying to manipulate me?”  Assuming the answer is no, then I move to the next response.  A crying employee is someone who feels like they are on the edge of crisis in one way or another.  So, I work with them on the immediate crisis to help them regain some composure and determine how they can take some action to gain a feeling of control of the situation.  Finally, a crying employee is one who needs some coaching.  You’ve been given an opportunity to work with them on self-awareness and self-management, so seize that opportunity.

Crying isn’t bad, but crying in the wrong situation can be pretty devastating to a career.

What do you think?  Is there room for crying at work?


  • Niki

    While I agree that if we are to retain our humanity and empathy for one another emotion must be shown in certain situations at work, an overly-emotional colleague can have a huge impact on how we behave at work. For example, I worked with a lady a few years back who would burst into tears at the slightest hint of criticism. This led to everyone being afraid to speak out of line for fear of having her create a scene or distress herself. I sat with her many times, talking through things to try to get to the heart of matters, but always wound up using a box of tissues and far too much of my time going around in circles. I have all the time there is for people, but they need to want to progress beyond blind, reactive crying fits and into looking at solutions. Most of the time, you can help them along, but when you can’t- that’s impossible to handle.

    Eventually, and after almost two years, she seemed to accept that she wasn’t happy in her role. She saw that she was not confident that any feedback she received was motivated by care for her, rather than a desire to do her down. She moved on.

    I still beat myself up that I couldn’t turn her around. Suffice to say I learnt from that experience and I now handle waterworks at work differently!

  • Kevin

    From a sales perspective, crying can happen (not in front of clients) because failure is inevitable. People are going to hang up on you, not answer your calls/emails and you’ll miss opportunities, lose deals. This can lead to crying as one works to understand how those situations came to pass so they can be addressed and avoided in the future. Persistent crying would indicate persistent failure and likely, not a good fit for the individual.

    Jason, you wrote that those who cry are eventually candidates for coaching. I believe you are implying that coaching is not just for the specific role or situation they are in, but for their careers. For example, it sounds like Niki’s colleague who moved on needed the push to do so earlier.

  • Amanda

    Great discussion! I think there is an important separation between crying at work because you are sad for yourself and tearing up because of injustice or strong emotion connected to others.

    I’ve always worked in nonprofits and public service with very tough social problems. This means I have to be intimately familiar with the desperation of individuals and their communities and that I need to use every ounce of my being to help them in every way I can. My serious passion and empathy make me great at my work, but that comes with a down side that means I might cry occasionally. Anyone who has a real problem with that wouldn’t like me anyway (and I wouldn’t like them) so I’ve learned to just get over it. Honestly some things in life are too important to get hung up on how you might be perceived. I have learned not to put myself in certain situations if possible because I know my emotions are super strong but being authentically me is most important. I’ve found success despite crying and because of the passion that comes with it so I would hate for anyone to feel like it was anything to worry too much about as long as it is not about you.

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