Is it ok to cry at work?

What do the tears mean? What are common myths about emotions at work. What should you do if a colleague tears up.

emotions at work
Photo by Anna Shvets on

3 different brilliant talented inspiring women leaders cried in my office,… in the same week. The reasons for their tears were as different as the women themselves. But each one of them, as their eyes welled up with tears, felt terrible about “letting emotions get the better of them”, and they apologized profusely. Why did they need to apologize? 

We have grown up in a corporate world where emotions, especially negative ones are taboo, at work. It is a world that just couldn’t embrace the whole human, and struggled to deal with the heart that came along with the human. And then came 2020. As our lives at home and work became inextricably intertwined, we had no option but to be more authentic, more genuine, and consequently more human. 

The bottom line is that we make men (and probably some women too) uncomfortable when we cry

What do our tears actually say? 

Tears capture a myriad of emotions, from frustration, anger, disappointment, shame, guilt, sorrow, hurt, feeling undervalued or unappreciated, feeling overwhelmed, all the way to feeling touched, appreciated, suddenly acknowledged, and seen. 

It is a non verbal expression of emotion that words can’t quite capture. 

Tears say, “I care about this (topic, situation, issue), a lot. And that’s it.

A good cry is like a pressure valve releasing steam, so you can focus on moving foreword, despite your circumstances. Crying often signifies a breakthrough, a pause to get energy from, an interlude to put your load down, even if just for a sec, so that you can move forward with renewed strength.

It is nothing to worry about. Certainly nothing to apologize for.

There are a lot of myths about crying at work. So let’s address the elephant in the room directly and unequivocally.

Is crying showing weakness? No

Is crying asking for help? No

Is crying looking for sympathy? No

Is crying at work unprofessional ? No

Is crying a sign of helplessness or desperation? No and No

What should you do if your colleague tears up?

1. Understand that tears express vulnerability, authenticity and passion, all at the same time. Having coached leaders for over two decades, I have certainly witnessed my share of tears (theirs and mine). But emotion is better than apathy, any day.

2. Understand that Inclusion is about accepting that we express ourselves differently, and we need to create a safe space for that expression.

3. Just Listen – without judgement, without minimizing, without jumping to solutions. Listen not just to the tears, the spoken words, but the underlying meaning, emotion, and intent.

4. Ask if there is anything you can do to help (don’t assume)

5. Be the person they can count on

Today, on International women’s day, as you think about the women in your life and those you interact with, choose to challenge and choose to commit …to them.

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