Crying at Work

March 1, 2015

I’ve been writing this blog for quite a while. I’ve shared the things I see as an executive team advisor, and I’ve exposed (and tried to be authentic about) the issues that I personally struggle with as a team member.  But there’s one topic I haven’t touched with a 10 foot pole–crying.

Crying is not something that executives are supposed to do, right!? Well, I think it’s just about time to do away with that notion. I was finally inspired to weigh in on this by a very courageous executive I worked with recently. The executive’s strength and willingness to make a thoughtful, passionate, and tearful contribution at a team offsite created a real breakthrough. It was a breakthrough that will improve decision making, change the tone and culture, and probably increase the likelihood the team will achieve its 300% growth target. If we (both men and women) could get over our stigma about crying, and worry more about whether we’re really connecting with each other, many more businesses could benefit from teams understanding each other at that deeply personal level.

So, I’m ready to weigh in. But I’m warning you, this one’s personal.

I am a crier.

No, not all the time. Not at the drop of a hat.  Not a blubbering mess.  But if I am very tired AND a topic is near and dear to my heart AND I feel frustrated (either with myself or with you), you might see clear liquid welling in my eyes. When there’s enough of it, that glistening saline will overflow the banks and trickle down my cheeks, probably taking some of my black mascara with it (just to ensure you don’t miss the moment).  Yes, those moist oblong blobs are tears. I am crying.

Safe Assumptions

Here’s what you can assume based on the fact that tears are running down my cheeks:

1. You have hit on something important and salient to me. Most likely, the issue was a surprise to me or at least how strongly I feel about it was. (FYI, if you don’t want me to cry, give me a heads up on issues over email so I can process ahead of time.)

2. There are important issues beneath the logical and rational aspects of the issue we are discussing. Something that was said triggered my feelings, probably because something I value deeply has been questioned or compromised.

Ok, that’s it.  Seriously, that’s pretty much ALL you can assume based on the fact that I’m crying. (Where did your thoughts go?)

Dangerous Assumptions

Now, importantly, here’s what you MAY NOT assume based on the fact that tears are running down my face:

I am no longer able to carry on a rational conversation. Totally false. For me, I am absolutely able to carry on the conversation and my preference is to do so. The last thing I want is to: a) sweep it under the carpet; or b) have to revisit it later. Onward.

I am weak. Do not assume I am weak. I am strong. I am not afraid of being vulnerable and that makes me so much stronger than those investing energy in maintaining a facade. Whether you are strong enough to lean into vulnerability is an open question.

I am trying to manipulate you or the situation. Believe me, my preference is not for fluid to leak from my eyeballs in front of a coworker. This is not a clever tactic to throw you off. (Incidentally, crying on command is not something most people can do. Even decent actors can’t do a believable cry.)

I am passing you the problem. Nope, not that either. I will take accountability for the issue, I’m just getting some new information from my autonomous nervous system about how much of an issue it is.

What You Need to Know

I am human. I am passionate. I am raw.

I am engaged. I care profoundly. I am connected.

I push hard. I’m all in. I get tired.

I do not have a thick skin. It is my permeability that allows me to connect, to empathize, to sense. Those are superpowers for me.

I will not be ashamed or embarrassed by any of those things. On the contrary, I am proud of them.

I would not trade them for the world for they make me who I am and make me great at what I do.

What You Can Do

When I start to cry, I know it’s uncomfortable for you too. But don’t turn away, just sit quietly and listen. If there’s a tissue around, that might be nice. (My dry cleaner hates having to remove the mascara stains from my sleeves.) But tears aren’t radioactive and you don’t need to panic and run for the first aid kit.

You do not need to protect me. Do not coddle me. Don’t patronize me.

Just open yourself up to what you can learn as a business person from the intensity of my feelings. Was there a whole level of the issue that you were oblivious to? I’m pretty sure you’ll learn something.

And afterward, we’ll be better connected. I’ll trust you more. I’ll respect you for letting me be me. I won’t be afraid to care deeply, to be all in, to push hard. I’ll go harder.

On That Thought…

One day, during a workout with my personal trainer, I pushed a little too hard.  I got dizzy and felt like I was going to barf. I was sheepish and embarrassed at the mortifying thought of puking on the gym floor.  He immediately told me that if I’m all in, I might barf one day–and that’s ok. In fact, he would see it as a badge of honor. Barfing would just be a normal, physiological reaction to taking my body to its limit in pursuit of high performance.

I don’t know about you, but if vomit is an acceptable price to pay for high performance, then a few tears seem like nothing.  After all, they are just a normal, physiological reaction to taking my whole being to its limit in pursuit of high performance.

I encourage you to comment below, either in support of or opposition to this position. It’s time we started communicating.

[For interest: Lacrimation (crying) is a really cool mechanism our body uses for different purposes. It turns out the chemical composition of tears depends on the purpose they serve.  Tears from cutting onions are quite different from the emotional tears I was describing. Check out microscopic images of different tears here.  Also, research suggests that emotional tears help us shed hormones that might have become out of balance and also stimulate the production of endorphins, which make us feel better. So, now you know why your grandma said you just needed a “good cry.”]

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