Go Ahead — Cry at Work

Corporate culture has long ignored the fact that we can't check our feelings at the office door. Why it's high time to get rational about emotions in the workplace

  • Photo-Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME; Getty Images

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    Instead of avoiding emotion, we need to become more rational about it. This is not to suggest that being embarrassed, frustrated or upset at work is inappropriate but rather that when colleagues show emotion, we should learn to interpret why those particular feelings were triggered and understand what happens on a social, psychological and even biological level as well as get to the bottom of our prejudices and reactions. Had I known, at the time of my Nickelodeon crying episode, the biochemical purpose of my tears (nature's reset button), I would have appreciated that they didn't necessarily signal unprofessionalism or weakness. And I would have grasped that emotionality at the workplace is not a female issue — men and women are equally driven by it, even if the emotions are sometimes expressed differently.

    Emotions 101

    Part of the reason emotions at work present such a challenge is that, evolutionarily speaking, our responses have not caught up with our environment. At its most basic, an emotion is an automatic physiological response. We do not get angry and then have our blood pressure rise; rather, our blood pressure rises in response to some threatening stimulus. For our ancestors, it was essential to survival to go on high alert before assessing whether the stick in the road was really just a stick or a venomous snake.

    At work, knowing what to make of our emotions is much more complicated. Real or perceived assaults on our egos, our social standing or our value to the organization are far more subjective threats. And yet we react to psychological threats with a hardwired biological response. It's this ancient-vs.-modern struggle — our inability to step back and see what's happening for what it is — that underlies our difficulty with handling emotion at work. Then there is the thick overlay of personal and social inhibitions, biases and stereotypes surrounding the expression of emotions.

    To learn more about all these forces, I partnered with J. Walter Thompson, a major ad agency, to conduct two national surveys. In the first, the Emotional Incidents in the Workplace Survey, we asked nine questions of a random sample of more than 700 Americans, equally divided by gender, representing the full range of occupational levels and economic sectors. For instance, what did a respondent feel before, during and after crying, getting angry or feeling despondent at work? Were those emotions related to the job? We also tried to get a sense of how people regard co-workers who express emotion.

    We found that frustration was the most commonly experienced emotion. Almost half of all respondents reported having become upset because they thought a co-worker wasn't doing his or her job. Sixty percent of all workers had seen their boss get angry at someone during the past year. And 41% of women had cried at work, compared with only 9% of men. Yet for both men and women, whether or not they had cried at work made no difference in how much they reported they liked their job.

    Differences between the physiologies of men's and women's tears explain, in part, the greater number of female criers on the job. In general, women cry almost four times as often as men: an average of 5.3 times per month, compared with 1.4 times for men, according to biochemist William Frey II. Women's tear ducts are anatomically different from men's, resulting in a larger volume of tears. In fact, often when men cry, tears do not fall down their cheeks.

    But for women, crying is far less disruptive at work than the shame and guilt that follow. Crying stimulates the production of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine and restores emotional equilibrium. But we found that in spite of the cathartic physiological benefits, women who cry at work feel rotten afterward, as if they've failed a feminism test. In contrast, the male criers in our survey tended to report that after their crying, their minds felt sharper, the future seemed brighter, and they felt more physically relaxed and in control. In short: according to our survey, women, who have a biological predisposition to cry more, feel worse after crying at work, while men feel better.

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