Crying at work: why the stigma is wrong

Such thinking remains the traditional wisdom in the business world as well, where tears have a very real stigma.

But an employee getting misty-eyed at the office may not necessarily be the disruptive disaster you imagine. While tears aren’t going to do your company’s immediate productivity any favors, experts say waterworks could have benefits in the long run.

1. An emotional display can strengthen relationships. Tears can reinforce the bond between employees, a sense of camaraderie that may result in stronger, more effective teamwork.

“There are people who are really good at showing who they are and displaying some emotion, and colleagues connect with that,” said Marie Wetmore, a life and career coach with Lion’s Share Coaching in Medford, Mass. “We all have that sort of natural empathy.”

When we see someone’s chin quiver, she explained, we want to figure out what’s going on and try to solve the problem.

2. When it comes to tears, timing is everything. But for an emotional display to generate a supportive, comforting response, timing and context are everything. Tears that slip out in front of a small number of people in an intimate, relatively private setting are generally more acceptable than letting loose in the middle of a meeting.

“I’ve never heard anyone say it had a positive effect when it’s done in a meeting or during interactions with a client,” said Kim Elsbach, a professor of management at UC Davis. “In those situations it doesn’t matter what the reason is. Even if it seems justified, it is really just anxiety-provoking for everyone.”

While you’re on the roller coaster, don’t force yourself to sort out what you’re feeling and why. Do some deep breathing, go for a walk, excuse yourself and go to the bathroom, and let yourself feel the feeling. That act of slowing down will naturally turn down the volume. For managers and employees alike, Wetmore advised, the key is to not be dismissive. Revisiting the underlying issue a couple of days later can help you figure out the best way to deal with it.

3. An emotional outburst can indicate a bigger problem in need of your attention. Crying can shed light on an issue that has been festering under the radar. And because most emotion at work stems from frustration rather than sadness, Wetmore says ignoring what’s bubbling under the surface could cause it to pop up somewhere else later, possibly to more harmful effect.

“If you’re dealing with a toxic work environment or relationships that aren’t working, you need to advocate for change or come up with different strategies,” Wetmore said.

4. Moving on is the best possible outcome. Taking charge of an emotion, yours or someone else’s, is an empowering experience that can give a workplace fresh energy. If, for instance, the problem stems from poor communication with a colleague, a thoughtful face-to-face conversation can push the issue in new direction.

“The key is not to see emotions as weakness but a strength, yet also handling them in a way that’s going to get you your long-term professional goals,” Wetmore said.

As you or your employees confront extreme emotions, you can begin to address change: people and things that are causing stress, or whether the problem is the way you handle it. And, as Wetmore was keen to stress, the health of your outside personal life is extremely important as well: good contact with supportive people, exercising, eating right, and getting enough sleep.

“We think that work is different than real life, but life is life throughout,” she said.