Crying at Work Can Hurt Your Image


It’s the morning after a contentious school board meeting about changes in high school attendance boundaries. Superintendent Julie Wilson walks into her office emotionally spent. As she flips on her computer, she is greeted by a scathing e-mail from the board president admonishing her for such “hideous recommendations” and “handing trustees over to a lynch mob.”

Suzette LovelySuzette Lovely

Wilson (who asked not to be identified by her actual name) is devastated by the e-mail. She and district staff spent months studying options, orchestrating an inclusive process and educating the board on the best alternatives. Teetering on the brink of exhaustion, she begins to sob uncontrollably. Her secretary rushes in to see what just happened.

Gender Disparity

Exposing our softer side in the workplace can make us all seem more human. But when it comes to organizational culture, experts say, weeping on the job is actually a bad idea. According to Nancy Albertini, head of a San Jose, Calif., executive search firm, crying often is viewed as manipulative and makes others uncomfortable. An office meltdown can leave co-workers at a loss for how to respond.

Although attitudes about office tears have shifted since Sept. 11, 2001, crying in public still carries a stigma. While tears are applauded in serious situations such as losing a loved one, dealing with a tragic event or at the retirement party of a beloved colleague, being dubbed the “office crier” is damaging to one’s reputation and can make an individual appear unstable.

A 2007 study directed by Stephanie Shields, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at Penn State University found men are given more slack than women when they get teary on the job. This is because men generally cry over sadness. Women, on the other hand, cry for more emotional reasons such as anger, frustration or relief. In the public’s eye, female tears are associated with being out of control or irrational.

Shields calls this the “Mr. Sensitive Advantage.” In essence, she says, when Bill Clinton cried he was seen as caring and compassionate. Yet when Hillary choked up on the campaign trail, she was called weak by the news media. For both genders, a moist eye is viewed more favorably than all-out sobbing.

On any given day, superintendents face personal setbacks, pressure and emotionally laced interactions. But responding with tears, especially on a regular basis, diminishes credibility and effectiveness. With job security less certain nowadays and fewer people around to shoulder the workload, walking around teary-eyed all the time creates a culture of worry and pessimism. School boards, staff and the community at large expect their leader to be strong, capable and hopeful.

Control Measures
If you feel the floodgates about to open at work, consider five tear-curbing measures to help preserve your image:

•  Schedule emotional time-outs. If your composure is about to crumble, get away from the office. Slip into the restroom, drive around the block or find a private area to escape to. Experts also suggest running cold water under your wrists, taking deep breaths or poking yourself with a paper clip as distractions.

•  Have a game plan. Enter confrontational settings fully prepared. Rehearse scenarios in advance. Use notes and outlines to keep conversations focused on issues and away from personal jabs. 

•  Talk through tears. Compartmentalize feelings that may feed a potential outburst (personal, professional or something else). Then remind yourself crying won’t wash away the problem. Cultivate a sense of optimism by seeking out a trusted colleague or mentor who will help put your fears or frustrations into perspective.

•  Build awareness frameworks. Sometimes we cry without knowing why. The better able we are to distinguish what sets us off, the more successful we’ll be in controlling these emotions. 

•  Practice mental yoga. When criticized, focus your thoughts away from the criticism to the contents of the concern. For example, if a school board member lets you have it for not providing requested information in a timely fashion, don’t respond with excuses for being late. Instead acknowledge the board member’s frustration and move the conversation toward resolution.

Suzette Lovely is the deputy superintendent for personnel services in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District in Placentia, Calif. E-mail: