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?

31 comments

  • It's definitely not career suicide, I've cried at work before (after a telling off from the CEO) and continued working and being considered a valued employee for a long time.

    I like the end of this article. It seems to be me that Sheryl Sandberg is trying to be like the traditional long hours working white collar male... which doesn't make the world a better place. I've never worked more than a 40 hour week (unless you include some very rare travel overseas for work) and I'm the breadwinner for our family. Human beings need time for work, time for our family, and time for ourselves... you can't get that working long hours.

    Commenter
    Sapphyre
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    April 04, 2013, 9:33AM
    • I can't say I've ever cried at work, but I have seen female collegues cry in sheer frustration, usually when it's about two in the morning and the program is still buggy.

      I can't say I blame them, the urge to kill rises in those situations!

      Commenter
      Jim Moriarty
      Date and time
      April 04, 2013, 9:34AM
      • I don't understand the contradiction that you seem to be talking about.

        All they're saying is that it's fine to cry if you have a genuine reason to do so. e.g. you find out a family member has died. You've had a series of major mishaps in your life.

        This implies that you probably wouldn't have occasion to cry at work more than perhaps once or twice a year, if that often. Not that there's a quota, but such serious events are rare in most people's lives.

        If you're finding you're so stressed by the work itself that you need to cry in the workplace- that is indicative of a real problem and it implies (including to your colleagues) that you're not able to handle your position and responsibility. So don't be surprised if you don't get promoted to an even more stressful position if this happens.

        Commenter
        Chris
        Date and time
        April 04, 2013, 9:43AM
        • The idea that anger is a "status emotion" that leads to promotion is perhaps around the wrong way. I'd say that senior / powerful people are allowed to display anger; that's what makes it a status emotion. I mean if the CEO yells at you and slams down the throne what are you going to do? If you throw a tanty and slam down the phone on the CEO?

          Commenter
          Kris
          Date and time
          April 04, 2013, 10:02AM
          • It works both ways.

            You're correct that usually those who display anger have high social status, but when people are uncertain of your relative social status, if you display anger, they will tend to assume you are of higher social status, which is a self-fulfilling assumption. Their belief makes it true.

            Commenter
            Chris
            Date and time
            April 04, 2013, 10:18AM
        • Also, I really have never understood the frequent assumption that men not crying, either because they simply don't feel the need to, or because they choose not to, is a negative thing.

          Being able to control when and how you express emotions is an indicator that one is in control of one's own emotions, rather than your emotions being in control of you.

          Yes crying can be a handy emotional release, but again, if you're so desperate for emotional release because your work is stressing you out that badly, that is indicative of a serious problem with your ability to handle the responsibility. If it's because of major life trauma, then all fair enough, but crying because you can't handle the stress of your work? I would not expect a promotion if I was frequently giving big red flags that I couldn't handle the responsibility I already had.

          Commenter
          Chris
          Date and time
          April 04, 2013, 10:08AM
          • We're humans, not robots. Crying is a natural thing. It's not career suicide if the tears are genuine and you excuse yourself. Crying on your bosses office floor because someone ate your lunch is another thing.

            Commenter
            BB
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            April 04, 2013, 10:13AM
            • Yes, I can't stand it when people complain about someone else pinching their lunch although I find it humourous that someone names all the food in the fridge - yesterday, for example, I ate a sandwich named Kevin.

              Commenter
              Snidery Mark
              Date and time
              April 04, 2013, 11:03AM
            • There was this lady who was crying at work, so I asked what was wrong.
              She said her mum had died. I said, "Why don't you go home - you should be with your family and such." She insisted that she would be better off at work and work would help keep her mind off the topic. Reticently, I said, "OK." and reminded myself to check on her in an hour. She got back to work. An hour later I checked on her only to find her in a worse condition than before - howling her eyes out. I asked, "What's the matter now?" She said, "I just got a call from my sister. Apparently, her mum has just died, too."

              Commenter
              Snidery Mark
              Date and time
              April 04, 2013, 11:39AM
            • Haha! that cracked me up. I'm pretty sure that would be career suicide from stupidity

              Commenter
              BB
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              April 04, 2013, 12:44PM

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