Spouters – could they be an office’s best asset? When Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s glamorous chief operating officer and author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, proudly wrote that she cries in front of her colleagues, sobbing jellies everywhere rejoiced. “We are emotional beings and we can be our whole selves at work,” she said. “Sharing emotions builds deeper relationships.” In the shoulder-pad era, crying was taboo, but as women increasingly dominate the workplace, soft skills and empathy have come to eclipse a more impersonal approach.
Steve Jobs famously wept rivers about everything, and among the growing ranks of celebrity crybabies are Adele, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Tina Fey. In certain industries, flash floods are de rigueur, and employees attend emotional intelligence training courses, because suppressing feelings is said to cloud thinking, impede job satisfaction and have a negative impact on performance. The land of tears is no longer such a secret place.
If Nigella Lawson was your boss, she’d send you straight home. “I don’t like women crying in offices, but then I’m not crazy about men crying in offices, either,” she told Newsweek in February. “I did send my boss home once for crying in the office. I’m proud and I never cry.” She has her supporters who, er, decry these salty downpours: it’s weak, manipulative and what toddlers do, they say. Suck it up.
So which really works best in charge, the head or heart? We asked four working women if they thought it had gone too far.
‘I’ll cry if I want to’
Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx
If someone cries in the office, I like to reach out, grab their hand, and say “I’m here.” Everyone rallies round, you feel closer to your colleagues and it fosters teamwork.
I have cried at work. It mostly comes from a place of passion and gratitude. If we hit a milestone, it can be hard to put that emotion into words – I guess that’s why it manifests itself as tears. Crying happens when someone feels strongly about something, or maybe it’s something personal that I or the CEO need to know about. I don’t think it reflects negatively on performance. In 13 years, I’ve never felt that an employee used crying inauthentically. So if it’s authentic, it shouldn’t be something you feel bad about. The environment I want to foster is vulnerability; you need to be yourself. If I cry, it’s a release and I can move on. Resentment and anger are toxic – if you don’t allow your staff to speak up then that resentment can become passive-aggressive and harmful.
I have also worked in a very corporate, mostly male, office selling office equipment. I would sit in my grey cubicle and think ‘They don’t even care.’ I thought then that if I ever had the opportunity to do this myself, it would be so different.
We’ve been a culture that has been fearful of femininity, believing that, as with tears, it can get out of control. I achieved my success by always being feminine. That energy is in men and women. I think that the more we get in touch with the feminine energy on the planet, the better.
Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal
We all want to bring our best selves to the workplace – you don’t want to let it all hang out, but you can’t always control everything. There will be a time when you’ve been up all night with a sick child, so if the office bully gets on your case, you might cry. That’s not a failure; it doesn’t mean you’re not management material. In my research, people at all levels reported that they had cried and that it didn’t hurt them. In fact, CEOs who tear up are viewed as better leaders than those with military rigour. It’s about humanity. Saying ‘we’re all in the same boat’ engenders loyalty.
Research has found that you can’t even choose your breakfast without emotion. The old-school idea that at work you are your rational self, while your emotional self deals with the rest of your life, no longer holds water. Trying to rigidly fake some executive workplace behaviour makes people implode, because it forces you to act unnaturally. The greater the effort, the more likely you are to be miserable. It finds its way out in tears or anger.
The feminised office is becoming more mainstream. It’s not about leaking all over the place, which would obstruct productivity. The point is that if there are occasional displays of emotion, don’t repress them, think about them. Ask yourself why it happened: am I feeling threatened or jealous? It’s about being aware of your flash points and developing protocols to help you move past that primitive ‘woo woo’ place where your hormones are blocking your ability to think.
‘No more tears, please’
Jackie Flint, journalist
I have no time for people who cry at work. I blame this heartless stance solely on working in one particular office – a weekly magazine where more tears were shed than at a mass screening of Titanic. It started on my first day. I turned around to find a workmate weeping at her desk at 9.50am, surrounded by cooing colleagues proffering hankies. Nobody did any work for the next hour as problems were discussed and she loudly sobbed and blew her nose.
For the next two years, not a day went by when someone wasn’t spotted sniffling at their desk/ in the corridor/ toilet/ meeting room. I was completely unprepared for this free-for-all. Where I come from, emotions are for special occasions and certainly not the office. I saw colleagues blub over everything and anything: having too much work, having too little work, relationship troubles, the flu, their dead cat. The personal was dragged into the workplace (there was nothing I didn’t know about some workmates’ home lives), and everything in the workplace became personal (“Did you see the way she spoke to me in that meeting?” “I can’t believe I’m not being promoted”). As crying became the currency, so every single thing became overemotional and overwrought. Psychologists have since identified the phenomenon of ‘emotional contagion’. It was truly exhausting.
There are exceptions, such as death-related news or the arrival of a P45. But otherwise, what’s your excuse? It’s awkward and unprofessional and, deep down, nobody likes a crier. Ladies (and men), you have been warned.
Ros Toynbee, Director of The Career Coach
It’s not appropriate to be a blubbering wreck at work. You have a responsibility to manage your emotions. Your colleagues are not counsellors, it can embarrass them and it undermines your credibility. You also expose yourself to gossip and claims that ‘She can’t handle her job.’ Heavy emoting is not something you can take back. If you’re in a leadership role, your team looks to you to be calm and unflappable. If you are all over the place, it makes people feel uncomfortable.
It’s not that you should be some kind of frigid, unemotional beast, but if it’s a private matter, deal with it out of office hours and manage yourself through the day. If you’re angry about work, talk to your boss, but before mouthing off or throwing a book, think about what needs aren’t being met. Don’t show the emotion: name it and make an appropriate positive request.
Unbounded emotions can create a downward, self-perpetuating spiral. So you cry in front of your boss and then start to dwell on it, thinking ‘I’m the bottom of the pile.’ We start to lose our confidence and our thinking contracts, so we become less creative and more insistent that others are victimising us. We lose our perspective.
The best professionals are both clear and compassionate. But there’s a big difference between empathy and outwardly showing the extremes of emotion. It’s the difference between being able to hold your head up high and feeling a bit of a mug.