Reprinted from Jessica’s “The Practical Business Radical” column in The Business Press.
I had told myself I was going to hold it in. Thirty minutes earlier, as I put the finishing touches on what I was going to say, I felt sad, but not quite on the verge of tears. Then, as I stood in front of our organization’s 60 staff, box of tissues close at hand, I opened my mouth to speak. Only a couple of words made it out before I became barely audible through my tears. I looked around the room and my teary eyes were met with 60 other pairs of wet eyes staring back at me. I had just announced an almost 20% reduction in force, and there was no way any of us were going to get through something that difficult without crying.
I had sought advice from colleagues at other organizations before making the announcement and almost all of them had either implied that I should hold back my tears or had flat out told me not to cry. Had I just broken a major rule of business? Had I just proven why many people say women should not be business leaders – because we are “weak” and can not get through important business dealings without crying?
On the Martha Stewart version of the television show “The Apprentice”, Stewart told a female contestant “Cry and you are out of here. Women in business don’t cry, my dear.” And in a recent promotional ad for the new show “Kell on Earth”, tough-as-nails fashion show producer Kelly Cutrone tells her staff to go outside if they need to cry. The world has conditioned women and men to believe that crying in business is bad.
I, however, think that the perceived weakness of crying at work is one of the strengths that women bring to the table. It brings humanity back into business, when business is so often against letting people feel normal, human emotions. If you have to do something like a reduction in force, you and everyone around you is going to be sad, even the people who get to keep their jobs. Avoiding any show of emotion in the process makes you seem inhumane and heartless, even if you are not.
Part of the problem with most discussions of crying in business is that everyone seems to lump all crying into the category of being a career hazard. Crying at work is all bad. Period. I do not think the answer is that simple. There are times when crying in business is a bad thing, but there are also times when letting the tears flow when they want to is the right thing to do.
In the “ok in business” category I would put the crying that occurs when something truly sad is happening – people are losing their jobs or something awful has happened to an employee or their family. Also in the “ok in business” category would be crying out of pure love and adoration or in a truly moving situation – I almost always get teary eyed when I talk about how amazing our staff are or when I have to say good-bye to someone at a retirement party.
On the other hand, there are times when crying in business is not such a good idea. In general, I would recommend against crying in front of people who report to you (unless the crying falls into the “ok in business” category previously mentioned). Part of anyone being successful in business is being able to keep it together under immense stress. As the leader of our organization, it would start to make employees nervous if I went to the people who report to me and started crying because I could not handle the stress. That is why they say that CEOs and human resources professionals have lonely jobs – the people in those positions do not have as many people to turn to within the organization when they need to let their emotions hang out.
To me, crying should not be used as technique to get people to react a certain way, or to rack up the sympathy points. It should come naturally and be done openly when showing that you are human is the right thing to do. Thinking back to the day I announced our reduction in force, I would not change anything about how I reacted. So what if 60 people saw me cry? At least they know that I have a heart. Now, where are those tissues?