It’s not healthy to suppress the stress of our personal lives or work, and we shouldn’t be expected to hide our emotions from our teams or managers, says Melissa Nightingale, partner at Raw Signal Group and author of How F*cked Up Is Your Management?: An Uncomfortable Conversation about Modern Leadership.
“The idea that we have one version that comes to work and it's completely distinct from the person who leaves the office at the end of the day is silly,” said Nightingale. “As managers, we can’t and shouldn’t expect our people to be robots. It’s not fair to them and, worse, it’s not how they will do their best work.”
Nightingale encourages her team members to be who they are and express how they feel, and that includes having a healthy cry when it’s needed. We recently discussed why crying has become so shameful, what it means to have a healthy cry, and how to speak up when you feel misunderstood for showing emotion:
Why has crying at the office become so shameful?
We have loads of hang-ups and stereotypes about what workplace tears mean. We have this idea that crying is weak, that there is no place for it in an office. When you think about all the other emotional behaviour that we accept in the workplace, it’s very strange that crying is out of bounds and weak, but yelling is somehow OK.
I had a boss who used to punch walls when he was angry. I had another boss who would pound his fists on the table, if he wanted to make a point. Looking back, this seems a strange way to motivate a team. These weren’t drill sergeants and this wasn’t the army. These bosses were trying to motivate young, mostly female, knowledge workers with subtle threats of physical violence. Through this lens, it’s all the more outrageous that we view crying as the unprofessional act.
What does a healthy cry look and feel like?
Often people need to cry and then they feel better, but they get very upset about being upset. This is where a compassionate perspective for ourselves and others comes in. If you feel sad, start by knowing that it’s OK to be sad. If you are overwhelmed or upset, don’t ignore those feelings. Negative feelings at work can be extremely important signals. Don’t rush to “fix it”. Take time to reflect on where, when, and why those emotions are showing up.
If someone feels misunderstood for crying by a team member or manager, how do they speak up?
I try to reinforce for my teams that crying is yet another way that we express ourselves. I once had a member of my team who, when we first started working together, let me know upfront that she tended to get teary during good or bad feedback. She reinforced that she still wanted and needed to get the feedback, but wanted to let me know proactively that there might be some tears, and that I shouldn’t stop giving her feedback. I thought this was a clever approach; it was something she shared early on and then when it later came up, we both knew what to expect.
Why are you encouraging your team to cry when they need to?
In 2008, Google set out to study management and learn what accounted for the differences in high performing and low performing teams across their organization. They discovered that the number one indicator of a high performing team was the psychological safety of that team; members could not only rely on each other, but could speak up when they disagreed, could fail in front of each other, and most importantly, could be vulnerable with each other. Bosses who struggle when their people show a range of emotions at work, need to take a hard look at how that impacts their people.
To learn more about building a team environment where people can openly express their emotions watch this TEDx Talk from Organizational Behavioural Scientist Amy Edmondson: