Let 'Em Weep

By Alice Andors Jan 5, 2012
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Get more rational about emotion in the workplace, advises Anne Kreamer, a former Nickelodeon executive vice president. For It's Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace (Random House, 2011), Kreamer studied the science behind emotion, attitudes about emotion in the workplace, and differences in how men and women react to stress. She spoke to HR Magazine about her book:

Q: Is it OK to cry at work?
A: Yes! Tears are the equivalent of your check engine light, a signal that something isn't right. Tears signal frustration, anger, sadness, exhaustion. They are not a sign of weakness, but rather our most powerful emotional reset button.

Has our view of crying in the workplace changed?
It's evolving. There's no longer separation between work life and home life. We work in our cars, at Starbucks, at the airport, in line at the supermarket—we're always on call. At work, we get calls and texts from parents, children, partners; at home, colleagues and bosses e-mail and call. This creates emotional leakage, changing how we view emotion at work.

How common is it for women—and men—to cry at work?
Forty-one percent of women in our research said they cried at work in the last year, and 9 percent of men admitted to it. This is in line with academic research—on average, women cry four times more frequently than men in any circumstance.

Does biology play a role?
Absolutely. Under stress, men produce testosterone and cortisol, the aggression hormones. Their tear ducts are larger, so when they cry, their eyes well up and they become misty-eyed. Women produce six times the amount of prolactin, the hormone that triggers tears, and when under stress release oxytocin, the "tend and befriend" hormone. They have smaller tear ducts, so tears tend to spill out. The net result is that women, on average, are hard-wired to cry more than men.

Does crying at work damage a man's reputation more than a woman's?
My research showed the opposite. Men and women viewed men who cried at work as empathetic, compassionate people. Women were far more critical of other women who cried, seeing it as a personal or moral failure. Men who saw women crying at work were not nearly as harsh in their perceptions.

What are common causes of tears at work?
For women, it's usually related to work—feeling undervalued or unappreciated, feeling frustrated or overwhelmed. For men, usually it's an emotional situation outside the workplace.

What should you do if you're about to cry at work?
Tears are almost impossible to stop once you've reached the pressure-valve release moment. Sometimes, you can bite your lip or physically distract yourself. Nonetheless, try to understand why: Am I angry? Am I shocked? Am I overwhelmed?

What should managers do—or not do—when someone cries?
Have a box of tissues! If you're giving a negative performance evaluation and your subordinate starts crying, hand over a tissue and say, "Here, take a few moments to collect your thoughts. If you're OK, we can continue, or we can continue tomorrow." But make sure you revisit the issue.

The interviewer is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.

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