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How To Handle Emotions at Work — When Women Cry…


I responded to a Forbes reporter Friday who was asking two questions:

1) How should organizations deal with “emotions at work?”

2) What is the perception when women cry at the office?

Here was my response…

How to handle emotions at work – emotions drive almost everything we do as human beings, whether we are at work or at home. How this issue is framed is important. We often talk about “emotions at work” as if they don’t belong there or they don’t fit in when in fact almost everything we do at work is impacted by emotions. The notion that the workplace should be an environment where only reason and logic rule the day is delusional, even though from our experience there are a lot of CEO’s and senior leadership teams who wish that were true. Some of the key drivers of employee engagement, for example, like finding meaning and purpose in what employees do, pride in the company or service or product, being inspired or motivated – all of these are essentially created and sustained at an emotional level. We want emotion in the workplace; without it we are dead as an organization.

So how should we handle emotions at work? We try harder to understand the role of emotion in the human experience. We cherish an emotional connection with our employees. And we create occasions, like rituals of celebration, where the emotional context is both rich and deep.  One thing we do know – if employees are not connected at an emotional level in what they do at work, their employer is not getting much if any of their discretionary effort – and that lost productivity can have a staggering impact on the bottom line.

What is the perception when women cry? – Crying is simply the physical manifestation of a deeply felt emotional experience. And the first appropriate response is some form of validation, understanding, or empathy. If possible all three. One of the most appropriate ways to truly help someone who’s crying is to be present with them in the moment and to acknowledge what they are feeling. Nothing is worse than the felt sense of being alone, marginalized, estranged, and not understood.

Crying, whether a woman or a man, has been pathologized in our culture as weakness.  Those who hold this view are missing an opportunity to more accurately understand the human experience and most importantly for the employee – to connect with them in ways that will leave a lasting impression in those deep places that drive our daily behavior in the workplace.

BEST PRACTICE: Organizations without emotion are dead.  They will never reach levels of employee engagement that produce true peak performance.  Having said that — few organizations have given managers the ability to work with elevated expressions of emotion.  “Have them talk to someone in HR…” is a common (and misguided) response. Give your leadership team the communication skills to effectively respond.

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2 Responses to “How To Handle Emotions at Work — When Women Cry…”

  1. Sheila Roberts Says:

    Re: the perception of women crying at work
    About 25 years ago, I held a reasonably senior position in a large financial institution (and continued to do so for another 15 years), where my first manager despised my tendency to cry. He told me that it would affect how others viewed me (he was probably right). I “trained” myself eventually not to cry. The result? A rather controlled manager whose employees liked me but feared my anger when it appeared (for me anger and tears have always been closely related). I eventually became more like me, but more controlled than I once was, when I left the organization and started a business with my husband. Imagine everyone’s shock when I developed cancer and part of the treatment left me a sobbing wreck – everything from commercials to greeting cards would set me off. And you know, I’m off the treatment and almost 5 years cancer-free, but I enjoy a good cry again. Dry my eyes, wash my face and I feel better emotionally than I have in years. I think in trying to be a “good” female employee and manager, I buried part of myself for years.

  2. drheem Says:

    Wow, so many possible responses:
    First, validate her sharing and honor what she’s learned. Her story fits the research for these reasons (among others):

    The value of feeling our emotions and how we don’t get the “intelligence” from them if we can feel them.
    How hard it is on the nervous system to truly shut down and disconnect.
    How men have been conditioned to shut down on emotions.
    How unexpressed pain and sadness often gets expressed as anger. How it is “safe” to share anger rather than more vulnerable, softer emotions like sadness.
    How she’s a pioneer for female employees, managers, senior level whatever to integrate our emotions as we move through the work day…
    You wonder — if her and her male first manager did the HPCA, how he might have realized that he would get more from his employees if he was was humanistic and understood not only the value but the intelligence that comes from our emotions.

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Don Rheem’s presentation on Employee Engagement gets underneath the real “whys” on the behavior of discretionary effort. I found his examples to be relative and understandable. I see how our leaders are making better connections with the hearts of our people, so everyone better understands the goals of the enterprise.

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