Is crying at work career suicide?

Maggie, (Alison Pill) sheds a tear in Aaron Sorkin's <i>Newsroom</i>.

Maggie, (Alison Pill) sheds a tear in Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom.

Much has been made of Sheryl Sandberg's publicity magnet manifesto, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The Chief Operating Officer of Facebook has drawn both admiration and ire for her assumptions about the ease with which women can tear at the fabric of cultural bias in the corporate world.

But there appears to be one topic in the book which has gained universal approval: crying at the office. And Sandberg is in favour of it, devoting a chapter to Emotions at Work. As she mentions in this Jezebel interview. 

"Nobody is going to publish the next Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and say that crying is one of them. But I am saying that it happens ... It has happened to me more than once. It will happen to me again. Rather than spend all this time beating ourselves up for it, let's accept ourselves. We are human beings ... and we can be our whole selves at work." 

Another successful woman women love to love, Tina Fey, echoed Sandberg's sentiment in her memoir Bossypants, recounting the time she cried during her tenure as head writer for Saturday Night Live. She mentioned it again recently in a TV interview, saying,


 "I find that, if it’s genuine, if something is so frustrating that you cry, that actually often scares the sh*t out of people." 

This is good news, right? Notice how both women mention how important being ‘genuine’ is? Let's express ourselves, girlfriends!  Except that in January 2011, Forbes magazine reported on an Israeli study which showed that "there are few situations where crying is 'acceptable’ at work.” And UC-Davis professor of management Kim Elsbach, who studies workplace crying, told Forbes that despite the fact that women usually cry out of anger, women who cry at the office felt ashamed about doing so, believing their actions may have cost them promotions.  

I can testify to this and not just because I've gotten misty over inspirational YouTube clips. There has been the odd occasion where, without my consent, my voice has faltered, my lips have trembled and I've struggled to get a handle on my composure. And I've felt - what's the phrase? - disgustingly humiliated by it. But there's something else I indulge in at work with far more regularity: rage spirals. Or, let's be real - tantrums. I've screamed bloody murder about, well, anything I deem worthy of my fury in that moment. 

Psychologists call this an amygdala hijack, a point at which the most unevolved part of our brains – the amygdala -- overrules every other civilised impulse and quite simply, goes nuts.

Daniel Goleman, who coined the term, says that "self-control is crucial ...when facing someone who is in the throes of an amygdala hijack so as to avoid a complementary hijacking - whether in work situations, or in private life." In other words, it's up to my co-workers to hang on tight until the storm is over. Is this fair? Hardly. However, research suggests that while people like me feel guilty after their little brain snap they rarely feel humiliated. 

But consider how many employees bear the brunt of their superior's anger. They may think of them as a villain; they may suffer from work-related stress but there's little evidence to suggest that the boss will lose their credibility by getting their rage on. Indeed, some psychologists refer to it as a ‘status emotion’ – one that ensures success at work.

So why is one emotional reaction considered an office faux pas while the other practically guarantees promotion? The answer lies in our own cultural expectations. We associate crying with weakness – it’s what girls do, while anger, even though it is an equally primitive response, is associated with strength and masculinity. But guess what? While women might cry more often than men it’s more a reflection of what’s socially permissible than, say, ‘natural’. For example, before the age of 12, girls and boys cry at the same rate. But something happens when boys reach puberty, as this Psychology Today article points out

In an analysis of 500,000 adults, men rated just as high as women in emotional awareness. But men ... have no roadmap for how to combine the masculine requirement of being strong and emotional at the same time.

The irony is that crying is more productive as it generates a greater stress release, thereby lowering cortisol – anger has the opposite effect.

You don’t have to be a Facebook COO to know that tears, just like anger, are a part of being human. But their growing proliferation in the workplace points to a deeper office trend –  the blurring of the personal and the professional. I’m not suggesting that employees regress into white-collared cyborgs devoid of humanity. (I’m also familiar with the empathetic preachings of R.E.M and have experiential knowledge that it’s sometimes beyond our control.)

But according to research, women are tearing up out of frustration not sadness. So while I agree with Sandberg when she says that "sharing emotions builds deeper relationships" I’d like to offer a second opinion from another one-time Facebook employee - Mark Zuckerberg’s former speechwriter Kate Losse, whose greatest concern about Sandberg’s manifesto is that her entire life has been swallowed by her work. She writes,

“Since her vision of work involves working all the time, it follows that work must be the place where one can be one’s full self.”

The problem is not the tears or even the authenticity – it’s that work has taken over our lives to such an extent we’re left pouring our whole selves into it and the result is that we're frustrated and overwhelmed by it. So rather than identifying ourselves as women who may cry at work we instead submerge our ‘authentic selves’ into a new identity, that of Workers Who Cry. Sandberg admits to working ‘24/7’, and at the time of her crying incident, Tina Fey’s hours were so gruelling she frequently stayed overnight at the SNL office. The new question then, is not if it’s ok to cry at work, but rather, how did work invade our lives this much to become a place worth crying – or raging - over?