The workplace has grown more casual, and certainly these days we devote a lot more time to it: Recent numbers show that the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over his or her lifetime, and those hours are more stressful than ever before. A recent RAND report found that one in five people reported experiencing some form of “verbal abuse, sexual attention, threats, or humiliating behavior at work in the past month,” or physical violence, bullying, or harassment in the past 12 months. Is it any wonder that many of us—most of us?—might be inclined to shed a tear or two from time to time?
Popular opinion seems to hold that crying at work is unprofessional and detrimental to one’s career. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Management Discoveries reinforced this notion, finding that for women, especially, crying at work can cause coworkers to view them negatively. Context, though, mattered: The study found that crying about personal tragedies, like a death in the family, was more acceptable than crying over a work frustration. Crying was also more acceptable when it was done in someone’s office than in public, and when it was over quickly.
The roots in the bias against crying at work are, of course, sexist. For one thing, when people talk about crying at work, they mostly mean women crying at work. Corporate culture is one that’s still very much male-dominated, and many women, and men, believe that women need to act like men—and yet be more likeable than a man—in order to succeed. This includes not displaying signs of any “weakness,” or even “feminine emotions,” and not making other people uncomfortable. The act of crying can be perceived as all three. And notably, women hold other women to these standards much more often. Research conducted by Anne Kreamer for her 2011 book It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace found that male managers reported being fine with female employees crying, while female managers were less so.
Of course, one reason women cry more is due to biology. Women have six times more prolactin—a hormone related to crying—than men. What’s more, while men may be less likely to cry, they are not less likely to express their emotions at work, often in as extreme a fashion—think pounding a fist on the table or yelling at a subordinate. And yet, as the Journal of Management Discoveries study noted, those men are viewed as “more powerful” and often rewarded with respect or admiration—or a promotion.
The upside is that there’s also plenty of evidence that people cry at work to no ill effect. And people do cry: Kreamer found that men and women at all levels of management reported crying on the job. 41 percent of women and 9 percent of men, in fact, said they’d cried at work during the previous year and that it had no difference in terms of their success.
The truth is that crying at work can be a powerful tool, and especially if employees—and their bosses—learn to recognize that most emotion at work stems from frustration, and not sadness, and that it’s not only involuntary but necessary. Emotions were developed as survival mechanisms; they’re hardwired into our biology. And as Americans work more and longer hours than ever before, the lines between the professional and the personal are increasingly blurred. People tend to connect with what they view as an authentic display of emotion. Crying in an intimate setting can help reinforce the bond and camaraderie between employees, as coworkers band together to address a situation that’s upsetting to one of them. Tears can also be persuasive: They show that we’re deeply moved, which in turn moves our audience.
Studies also show that crying at work may even make employees more productive. In cases where, for example, there may be some underlying tension between two employees, an outburst of tears can result in a healthy and productive air-clearing or resolution of a situation that has long been brewing. Crying can also be a valuable way to address something that’s bubbling beneath the surface. Revealing upset can lead to reevaluating a situation, and initiating a productive conversation, which, in turn, may help everyone work more efficiently and successfully while also helping avoid future conflict.
Of course, there are a few instances when it’s best to hold back, if you can. Tears are less effective, and possibly damaging, when they occur in large group settings or during interactions with, say, clients. For the same reasons a client doesn’t want to see his company contact get a little tipsy during a work lunch, he doesn’t want to see her cry, either. It’s not necessarily the act of crying itself, but the discomfort and awkwardness the crying creates. The call for empathy and togetherness that crying may inspire among coworkers doesn’t translate to the executive-client relationship. Crying also shouldn’t be used to get what you want or purposefully manipulate. Or because it’s the only way you can handle criticism. All that said, if crying happens, don’t beat yourself up. It’s important to remember that displays of emotion—including a few tears—are part of what it means to be a human which, by the way, doesn’t turn off just because we’re on the job.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D.