Why do so many people think that, when we go to work, we are our “work selves”, and that when we are not working we are our “real selves”? When did we forget that we are all still just people?
I had a meeting today with a coworker who cried during our conversation. It wasn't the first time this has happened in the 3-plus years in my managerial career. (It’s actually more like the tenth.) And it certainly won’t be the last.
COMMON REASONS PEOPLE CRY AT WORK
A “typical” crying situation looks like this: A person feels frustrated with a task and isn't able to make the difference they want to. They care so much about what they are doing, it spills out of them in the form of tears.
One of the things that the coworker I met with today said, while actively shedding a tear, was they were sorry for crying. That they knew that it wasn’t an acceptable thing to do at work.
My response was, “I don’t think that. You’re upset about something and it’s showing, but that’s not a bad thing, or a wrong thing, or a deficiency in you. If anything, it shows how much you care about what we’re doing here, so I’m thankful for that.”
Or another “typical” situation that might result in someone crying? A death in the family (or another difficult, non-work related situation). In these cases, I've found myself offering a hug and it being accepted.
One time, I actually remember thinking to myself, “Why am I wondering if it’s weird to console someone while we are standing in our office, when I wouldn’t think twice about this on the sidewalk, or anywhere else beyond these four walls?”
My best guess response to my own question is that American business culture has been shaped by male ideals of toughness and aggression. Because of that, an act like crying is often perceived as being overly sensitive, which we’re conditioned to see as a sign of weakness. (If you can’t tell by now, I think we need to actively change that kind of culture.)
A third crying scenario that I've encountered is when, as a manager, I’ve given someone constructive feedback that I could tell was causing the person’s eyes to well up.
After this happened a couple of times while I was coaching one individual, I broached the topic of their tears during feedback. I learned that they were having a tough time separating the “criticism” part from the “constructive” part. By acknowledging the crying, we had a productive conversation about how I could be a better coach. There are still tears sometimes—but now we both laugh about it, knowing that it’s just how this person is.
IT’S TIME WE ACCEPT TEARS AT WORK
Rather than viewing crying as a weakness, what if we choose to view it as a totally normal human reaction to really giving a crap about your job and not wanting to let others down?
What if it’s happening as the result of a tragedy in someone’s life that is impacting them at work?
What if it’s just because we’re, you know, people?
Perceiving when someone might need to step into a room and vent about something or share a difficult situation is what it means to have Emotional Intelligence, which is an area of managerial aptitude that I believe will be much more highly prized over the next decade. After all, feeling understood is what we’re all looking for in any interpersonal relationship.
As people who happen to also be managers, we should all see that allowing someone to feel comfortable with crying helps them feel understood, validated, and supported as a person themselves. Because, really, we're just two people sitting in a room — not a boss and an employee at work.
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