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The expert's guide to crying at work

Rebecca Greenfield


 /  Fri, March 10, 2017  /  03:00 pm
The expert's guide to crying at work

Recent research from the Harvard Business School has found the secret to turning tears into workplace gold: make them evidence of your professional passion. (Shutterstock/File)

The conventional wisdom on crying at work is, well, don’t. It’s unprofessional, it makes other people uncomfortable, and women in particular come off as weak when they do it.

Yet, despite the stigma, many do it. In one survey of 13,000 people, 10 percent of respondents reported holing up in an office bathroom stall to let it all out. Another survey of 700 people found that 41 percent of female respondents and 9 percent of male respondents admitted to crying at work. I’ve done it at my desk in an open office space. And while reporting this story, many of my colleagues, men and women alike, have copped to getting emotional at work, too.

Given that crying is a natural part of the human experience, we shouldn’t be surprised that occasionally it occurs in the workplace. Therefore, we need not only accept its existence, but perhaps learn to use it to our advantage.

Recent research from the Harvard Business School has found the secret to turning tears into workplace gold: make them evidence of your professional passion.

In a series of five experiments, researcher Elizabeth Bailey Wolf found that when workers blamed tears on an emotional investment in their work, they were rated as more competent than those who cried for other reasons. In one scenario, for example, researchers described a work conflict between team members that culminated in crying. In one version, the worker blamed his or her outburst on a personal investment in the job. In another version, the crier blamed the tears on just being emotional. In a third version, the person didn’t say anything about the tears.

Those who talked up their passion were rated as more competent, the study found.

In another experiment, participants read transcripts from job interviews for a position as a pharmacy technician. As part of the interview, a candidate described trying to set up an internship program at his or her old job that, because of budget cuts, got pulled. The interviewee got choked up about it in front of the boss. In one version, the interviewee said “it’s because I get really passionate about things I care about.” In the other rendition, the candidate said “it’s because I get really emotional about the things I care about.” After reading the transcripts, study participants said they would hire 61.5 percent of passionate interviewees compared with 47.4 percent of emotional interviewees.

“Essentially you’re saying: 'I’m upset not because I’m an emotional mess, but I’m crying because I’m so invested in this that it emotionally affects me when it doesn’t go well',” said Wolf. “That’s something that most employers want. They want people who are dedicated and deeply invested.”

Read also: Work-life balance is new goal for many

Performance review tears

Of course, this strategy only works for work-related tears, and sometimes people cry at work for personal reasons (though if spotted, you could try to pawn it off on the job). Nevertheless, this dynamic tends to truly crystallize in the performance review, the best known venue for workplace crying. If involuntary tears start welling up during harsh criticism from the boss, instead of apologizing for getting emotional, blame them on passion for your job. The boss might perceive the tears as noble, even endearing, rather than weak. 

Workers are generally told to leave their tears at home. Jennifer Porter, a managing partner at the Boda Group, an executive coaching firm, advises clients—particularly women—not to cry on the job.

“If you can find strategies to not cry at work, it's in your career best interests,” she said. Wolf’s research confirmed that holding back tears still beats all other options. In one of her experiments, when given three options for a potential project partner, participants chose the person who hid distress over someone who admitted to crying—no matter what the reason. 

The aversion to workplace crying, in part, comes from the discomfort everyone else feels, said Porter. It’s awkward to watch someone else cry. “The negative reaction to the tears is saying, ‘your behavior makes me more uncomfortable than I want to be, so please stop,’” she said. Porter works with executives to help them handle their employees’ tears better with coping strategies, such as staying quiet and not reacting too negatively when the crying starts. 

But not everyone can or should suppress emotion—even in the workplace. Crying is difficult to control and letting things out can actually improve office dynamics. “People who consistently and chronically hide their emotions tend to have less close relationships,” said Wolf. Relationships drive workplaces. In Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace survey, employees who had better communication with managers reported higher workplace “engagement,” the HR buzzword for how much someone likes their job.

Engagement, in turn, drives performance. Encouraging crying, then, might be in an organization’s best interest.

Marcus Hardy, a 29-year-old account supervisor at Codeword, a P.R. agency based in Lehi, Utah, wants to make crying at work more acceptable. Hardy said he cries “at least a couple of times a year” at the office and is open about his habits, even encouraging younger colleagues to let it all out. “You’re a human being, you’re not just some machine,” he said. “I honestly feel a lot better afterwards.”

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