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

    (3 of 3)

    And women are harder on others who cry, especially other women: 43% of the women in our study, vs. 32% of the men, considered people who cry at work "unstable," which sounds like a serious character flaw or mental disorder. Rather than harshly judging themselves and others for something that's a biological fact — tears are, after all, similar to a hiccup, sneeze or burp — wouldn't it be far better for women to instead focus on what stressors our tears might be revealing?

    Workplace weeping is far more likely to be triggered by anger and frustration than by sadness. Women reported feeling angry at work more than men did, especially younger women (ages 18-44). However, men were more likely to express their anger, which suggests that they feel safer in doing so; in our survey, 42% of young men felt that anger is an effective management tool (as Sumner Redstone clearly did), vs. only 23% of young women.

    When women do cut loose, they then experience greater distress about having done so, which makes their anger backfire internally. (According to social psychologist Carol Tavris, your expression of anger must restore your sense of control over the situation in order for it to be effective.) But if women feel conflicted about expressing anger, it's with good reason — their anger is almost invariably perceived and interpreted differently than men's.

    In 2007, two business-school researchers, Victoria Brescoll of Yale and Eric Uhlmann of Northwestern, conducted three studies in which participants watched videos of actors pretending to apply for jobs, sometimes showing anger or sadness and sometimes not, and then assigned jobs and salaries to the make-believe new hires. Not only were women judged to be worse employees when they expressed anger, but also, angry men were actually judged to be better hires than nonangry men.

    Additionally, a woman's anger was attributed to her personality — "she is an angry person"; "she is out of control" — while men's emotional reactions tended to be seen as justifiable — "the work was shoddy" or "the report sucked." In this context, it's no wonder that more than 50% of women reported being angry at work during the past year — for the moment, there is simply no socially appropriate way for women to express legitimate anger in the workplace.

    And there needs to be, because emotions have as much impact on our work performance as cognitive brain functions do. Studies by Antonio Damasio at the University of Southern California's Brain and Creativity Institute and others have demonstrated that without emotion, it is impossible to make decisions. Real emotional intelligence is more than being sensitive or nice, more than understanding how to read the mood of a conference room or having insight into whether a colleague is more analytical or expressive in her approach to problem solving. The workplace has never been more diverse than it is today, the boundaries between the personal and the professional never so blurry. The ability to not only envision alternative responses to a given situation but also understand that there are entire invisible galaxies of salient emotional facts behind almost every exchange on the job is not just more possible than ever; it's more urgent.

    There are payoffs, personal and professional. In our study, 69% of respondents felt that when someone gets emotional in the workplace, it makes the person seem more human, and a whopping 88% of all workers (93% of women and 83% of men) felt that being sensitive to others' emotions at work is an asset. Emotions are who we are. As management consultant Erika Andersen (author of Being Strategic and also my sister-in-law) says: "No one wants to cry at work. But if you say to yourself, 'I know people will sometimes get overwhelmed, and if that happens one or two times a year, can I handle that?' — well, the answer is, 'Yes, of course I can handle that.' Crying at work is transformative and can open the door to change."

    Adapted from It's Always Personal by Anne Kreamer, © 2011. Published by Random House Inc.

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. Next Page