What 15 Female Leaders Really Think About Crying At Work

What 15 Female Leaders Really Think About Crying At Work

There may be no crying in baseball, but whether there's a place for it in the office is another question entirely.

Facebook COO and Lean In evangelist Sheryl Sandberg has done it -- openly. "I've cried at work," she said in a 2012 speech at Harvard Business School. "I've told people I've cried at work... I try to be myself."

Barnard president Debora Spar, on the other hand, votes no. "I think crying in the workplace is generally a bad idea unless some tragedy has happened," she once told The Huffington Post. "Crying over criticism is not appropriate. The workplace is not a personal environment."

Of course, shedding tears, or not, at work doesn't just matter to women. But research suggests it does disproportionately affect them: More women than men say they've cried at work (41 percent compared to 9 percent, according to Anne Kreamer's book "It's Always Personal: Navigating Emotion In The Workplace"), and their feelings about it afterward are particularly fraught. "In spite of the cathartic physiological benefits, women who cry at work feel rotten afterward, as if they've failed a feminism test," Kreamer writes. "[Women] feel worse after crying at work, while men feel better."

We asked a group of female CEOs and leaders, in different fields and of different generations, about the complex etiquette of crying at work. Here's what they said.

Mika Brzezinski, co-host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC

mika brzezinski

Every time I have cried at work I have regretted it. That doesn't mean it hasn't happened -- in fact, it has happened at the most inopportune moments. But as I get older I have realized it is simply not worth it.

I cried when I was fired from CBS, right there in front of the president of CBS News. It was a mixture of shock and deep sadness, because I loved working there so much and I was also full of feelings about disappointing my family -- especially my two young girls. But there was no place for those tears in that moment. If anything, when you cry, you give away power.

When you are in control of your emotions, you are communicating that you are in control. Being in control of your emotions gives you much more power at work ... much more control over any situation ... and much more dignity. I suggest never, ever, ever crying at work.

Laura Safar, M.D., director of Neuropsychiatry Clinical Services and Education, Brigham and Women’s Hospital

There are no absolute answers to this question, and it’s not just about gender. For anyone, man or woman, the answer would depend on context and degree. Sobbing uncontrollably in response to a minor mishap? Not OK, most times. But the timely shedding of a tear or two in front of a trusted colleague, reminding us that a good emotional range is part of humans' strength? Probably fine, go ahead.

Nanette Lepore, fashion designer

nanette lepore

There's a lot of crying around my studio leading up to fashion week. Eighteen hour days with no time off for weeks on end creates a lot of stress and exhaustion, so it's expected. But normally, it's just awkward.

Vanessa Loder, founder and CEO, Akoya Power

When I worked in finance, especially on Wall Street, I never wanted to be "that woman," you know, the one who cries during her review. I would clench my fists under the table and take a deep breath trying to avoid any emotional reactions. And yet, sometimes it would happen anyway. I remember one time when I was really upset and tried to walk out of my manager's office so he wouldn't see me cry, but he called me back in and kept prodding me until I really broke down. I was so embarrassed. And I was concerned that it diminished my power or caused him to view me as some irrational, emotional mess.

If you feel safe, I think it can be very powerful to cry and let people see how you really feel. And when you're home alone that night, spend some time really allowing yourself to feel your feelings and see what's underneath all that emotion. It's not your job to make sure everyone around you feels comfortable all the time. It's your job to take care of you.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and CEO, Center for
Talent Innovation
, author "Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success"

sylvia ann hewlett

Executive presence is signaling to the world that you have what it takes -- that you’re leadership material. Senior leaders consistently report that crying detracts from one’s executive presence, which rests on three pillars: gravitas (how you act), communication (how you speak) and appearance (how you look). Crying, I found in my research, is just one of a menu of communication blunders that, in a mere instant, can suck the executive presence right out of you.

Frances Hesselbein, founder, The Frances
Hesselbein Leadership Institute
, former CEO, Girl Scouts of the U.S.A

I believe that tears should be very private and no matter what issue, or what situation, we should have a very dignified demeanor. Be open and as helpful as possible, but tears belong within the family.

Federica Marchionni, president, Dolce and Gabanna, Inc.

federica marchionni

I am sure that most women have cried at work once; I am almost certain that the same is not true of most men. Most importantly, I think very few women are happier after crying in front of their bosses.

Women definitely must speak up and express their beliefs and emotions, but not necessarily with tears in their eyes. Actions can send stronger messages.

Marina Whitman, professor of business administration and public policy, University of Michigan, former vice president and chief economist, General Motors

Over the course of a long career, I've occasionally cried in the office, but only in privacy, never where anyone could see me, though I came perilously close once or twice. Why is it a bad idea? If the person you're confronting is male, it provides one more excuse to make him think "Isn't that just like a woman?" And if she's female, tears may make her feel defensive, guilty or at least uncomfortable, which is never good idea in the workplace.

On the other hand, if the reason for tears is shared by those around you -- the death of a well-liked colleague, for instance -- then a few tears are entirely acceptable.

Cindy Gallop, founder and CEO, MakeLoveNotPorn

cindy gallop

I think crying in the office is fine as long as you do it very rarely and only under extreme duress -- which is usually how it happens. I can count the number of times I've cried in the office in the course of my career on the fingers of one hand (five), and each time I surprised myself, because it was an involuntary reaction to someone being unpleasant to me, that I couldn't have anticipated and prevented. There is nothing to be ashamed of in those circumstances for either women or men -- because men cry in the office, too. Sometimes, other people seeing the strength and emotion of your response is no bad thing, because they take what's happened more seriously and do something about it that helps you.

Pamela Wiegartz, PhD, clinical psychologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital

We are all human and crying at appropriate moments is healthy and can express a vulnerability and authenticity that strengthens rather than diminishes us in the eyes of our co-workers. If it's happening too frequently, though, it can damage those same relationships and we would do well to identify the underlying sources of stress and make changes toward better balance and self-care.

Jessica Herrin, founder and CEO, Stella & Dot

jessica herrin

People are humans with emotions and I have seen both men and women cry at work -- tears of joy and tears of frustration. I get moved to tears often. However, if it’s over spilled milk -- not a good idea. Other than that, let’s hope it's tears of joy.

Kara Goldin, founder and CEO, Hint Water

Crying at work is not a black and white scenario. People are different, types of careers are different, workplaces and cultures are different. To feel good about who you are and how you conduct yourself, you have to be true to yourself. If you become overcome with emotion and cry at work, you shouldn't beat yourself up about it. Pick yourself up, drum up your will and energy in the best way you know how, and continue to get after it. Everyone has tough days.

Joanna Barsh, director emeritus, McKinsey and Company

joanna barsh

I had been elected senior partner. Here was my chance to present a vision for growth and I did so with a passion for transformational change. Naturally, the partners responded by wondering why they had elected me. Despite my best efforts not to cry, tears appeared; luckily, I wear glasses.

Whether or not you admit to crying at work yourself, you know that it happens daily (to someone). Is crying always a bad thing? Not at all. In some cases, it is the absolute best thing you might do. But in situations like mine in front of the most powerful partners in the firm, crying is your sign that an Amygdala Hijack is happening. I don’t think of this as a ‘bad’ cry, but you’ve seeded the power -- your emotional survival is threatened and your brain’s amygdala has rushed to defend, sending out cortisol and adrenaline.

When the stakes are high, and habitual patterns are triggered in us, extreme emotions like crying or angry outbursts result ... but we can learn to manage them. Gain self-awareness of your own patterns through reflection, seeing yourself without judgment, but with appreciation for your underlying needs or fears. Learn to pause, and in that moment, step outside of your own movie to view it.

Manijeh Motaghy, founder, Mindful Business Institute

I am not against crying at work. In fact, doing so can give a person a few moments of relief. Those who are against it perhaps fear the employee is caught up in the story that caused her to cry, and distracted from tasks at hand, which is understandable.

I believe the best way is to train employees to become more aware of the underlying feelings behind crying rather than preventing it (because it is not appropriate) or allowing it (because it is more humane).

Alli Webb, founder, Drybar

alli webb

I think generally you don't want to let your emotions get the best of you at work. It's business, not personal. With that said, we are all human and like it or not, our emotions sometimes can take over. It has certainly happened to me.

If you feel like you are on the verge of a tear-fest, run to the bathroom, get it out in private, take a deep breath and then go face your issues head-on.

These answers have been edited and condensed.


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