Working and Leading Through Tears

Theresa May

Picture this: You’re in a meeting with a direct report. Things are not going well. Her creative impulse seems laser focused on deconstructing everything you’ve built. You cannot understand how someone who’s ostensibly a colleague, and who came to work for you willingly, has misunderstood you and your museum to such a degree. Suddenly you’re crying. Worse, you’re angry that you’re crying, which makes your tears harder to control. Sound familiar? Well it should. According to a 2018 survey, 45-percent of people report crying at work.

Even if you’re in the dry-eyed 55-percent of American workers, given that we toil outside our homes an average of 90,000 hours in a lifetime, and one third of us work more than 45 hours every week, it’s likely, some day, some time, you’re going to cry at work. Is crying a bad thing? The experts say not really. According to the same survey, CFO’s and people over 55 are the most forgiving when it comes to tears, reporting that unless it happens frequently, it’s not a problem. Crying is after all a human emotion, and far less toxic than yelling, which also happens in some workplaces.

As with many things in life, how crying is perceived depends on context and culture. In fact, the person crying often reacts more negatively than those around her who may not know how to react. Crying, after all, violates what anthropologists call “display rules” or a social group’s informal norms. Traditionally, our workplaces–and museums and heritage organizations are still wallowing in a whole lot of tradition when it comes to human behavior–aren’t places for overt emotion; ergo, don’t cry.

If you identify as a woman, you may be told by mentors, friends and leaders to avoid crying at the office like the plague. Why? Because museum workplaces are staffed by humans, not Artificial Intelligence, and humans are full of subconscious biases. For many, whether we acknowledge it or not, crying indicates weakness, emotionality, and a loss of credibility. And women who cry are treated as if the next stop is a rest cure and  basket weaving classes.

There are biological reasons that women cry more than men. Women have more prolactin, a hormone that stimulates tears, while men’s higher testosterone levels may prevent them from crying. Men cry less frequently than women at work, but those who do are generally not penalized. Crying somehow humanizes men, while in women it can mark them as weak or hysterical.

This leads women to slink alone to the bathroom, where they sob in a stall before returning to their desks as if nothing happened. But something did. And weirdly, the way your workplace handles crying may be an indicator of how evolved and inclusive it is. In an old school, hierarchical, and male-dominated workplace, crying is a red flag. If it happens too often, your tears–and everything they represent– stamp you with a sign that says “emotional,” and future moves become challenging when you’re described as a good worker, but too emotional. In a more inclusive work environment, where stress is acknowledged, crying is shrugged off as part and parcel of being human in a complex and demanding world.

So what should you do if you find yourself in tears at work: 

  • Acknowledge what’s happening–“I’m upset and I need a moment here”–and step away. Blot your tears, breathe deeply, return.
  • Do a self-check in. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know we advocate for weekly check-ins.) Are you under an undue amount of stress? At home? At work? Are you getting enough sleep, exercise, time for yourself? If the answer is no, can you change any of those patterns?
  • If you know some situations make you prone to tears–the board member who winds you up, the umpteenth building crisis with the misogynist plant manager, the unnecessarily sassy staff member–plan for them. You know what frustrates you makes you cry, and once you cry, you’re angry, and things escalate. Anticipate situations like this by role playing and rehearsing ahead of time so you respond with words not emotion.

If you’re a museum leader, and a member of your team cries:

  • Be kind. Be mindful that it’s not all about you. Or even necessarily about work. You have no idea what’s going on in your staff member’s life. Instead, ask whether there is anything you can do, and whether they want to be alone for a little while.
  • Normalize the behavior with a phrase like, “I think we’re all a bit stressed at the moment.” Again, offer the person crying space if they need it.
  • If it’s appropriate, respond with your own story of crying at work. In doing so, you  help create a culture that’s accepting, not embarrassed, about emotion.

How do you deal with emotion in the museum workplace? Let us know.

Yours for a tear-free August.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

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2 Comments on “Working and Leading Through Tears”

  1. Denise McClean says:

    Thanks for this. It gives me a different perspective on tears in the workplace and I will be more compassionate with employees who have a tendency to cry in anger or sadness. I’ve circulated this to some of my managers. We need to stop viewing people who are emotional as weak or crybabies. But we do need to help them understand how to deal with them in the workplace.

  2. Sarah Sutton says:

    I cry when I am passionate and when I am excited by good work and good outcomes.


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