Last week, President Barack Obama delivered a speech on gun violence in America. He spoke about how 30,000 Americans die every year due to guns and he passionately expressed his belief that this needs to change.
As Obama spoke, he touched on all the young people killed through gun violence in America – the college students in Santa Barbara, the high schoolers at Columbine, the first graders in Newtown, Connecticut and kids in the streets of Chicago. As he spoke, tears began to fall from his eyes as he was over taken with emotion of those tragic events.
From my point of view, it was a genuine moment of pure, sincere emotion.
What was fascinating to me was not that Obama cried during his speech but rather the reaction that ensued in the media.
Many were moved by his words and in the way he delivered them. Many thought his tears were for the lives lost, but maybe also because of his realization how little has changed during his two terms as president.
Donald Trump acknowledged Obama’s sincerity, while disagreeing with the content of his message.
There were others however who criticized Obama. To these people, his tears were seen as a political stunt staged to sway public opinion to his vision of gun control. They accused him of using a chemical substance to induce the tears. Some questioned his manhood, suggesting that “real men don’t cry.” Others even commented that the way he wiped his tears was consistent with a pattern particular to sociopaths.
This wide and varied reaction got me thinking about crying in the context of leadership and how should leaders react to the tears of others?
In my own experience as a leader, and in my consulting work as a leadership adviser, I’ve been in many instances where people have cried. At times it’s happened during a meeting when someone gets devastating news about the health of a loved one. Or when someone is so overwhelmed with emotion over a particular business issue that he or she is overcome by tears.
Many times in leadership development programs, participants have cried when they retell stories of being bullied and even abused by bad bosses.
To me these are all legitimate reactions to real human experiences at work.
I’ve also seen crying used by some as a way of manipulating a situation or person in order to get their way on a particular issue.
In the end, I find this whole discussion and people’s reaction to crying to be very interesting.
Of all of the ways of we express emotion at work, this is the one that is most frowned upon. For example, if I were to throw a major tantrum at work, filled with screaming and desk pounding, that would be more tolerated than if I would breakdown and cry.
And if I were to cry, I would immediately be perceived as being weak or unprofessional.
Why are we so conditioned to react this way? I believe that we need to evolve our perspective. Crying is a human emotion. It can happen for many genuine reasons, and as leaders we need to acknowledge it and support people through it. Unless of course, it is manipulative in nature.
We need to take stock of, and challenge, exactly how we react when someone at work cries.
Do we freeze? Are we overcome with awkwardness that makes us unable to either support the person, or manage their situation? Some leaders I know dictate that crying will not be tolerated in any situation. And then there are those who simply know what to do and are able to support a person through a moment of tears.
Which way do you respond?
I believe we must reflect on this question. As leaders, we need to have our own sense of how we respond in these situations because they do and will happen in course of leading others. And then challenge those reactions and ask, ‘am I doing what is right for the person and the organization?’
This week’s gut check asks: how do you react when someone cries at work?
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