Commentary: Should you cry at work? Answers to some very personal work life questions

Commentary: Should you cry at work? Answers to some very personal work life questions

When staff get angry or weepy, managers can help steer a path back to normalcy, says the Financial Times' Andrew Hill.

A man tired from working in the office. (Photo: Pixabay)
A man tired from working in the office. (Photo: Pixabay)

LONDON: “I often feel like an emotional washing machine,” said one manager I met recently.

Here is one vital job leaders do, whether they like it or not: Take a tangled load of emotions from team members and run them through a cycle so staff can return, rinsed and refreshed, to the task in hand.


Sometimes, though, managers still handle that job like a machine — and it is the staff who get hung out to dry.

“If I let myself feel their problems, I’d never get anything done,” one manager told psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby. “It would be impossible to deal with the people.”

He surveyed 250 managers for a Fortune article — The Corporate Climber Has to Find His Heart. Daniel Goleman made it an example in his bestseller Emotional Intelligence. “Such attitudes are outmoded, a luxury of a former day,” he wrote.

Maccoby’s article was written in 1976; Emotional Intelligence was published in 1995. It is partly because of the huge success of Goleman’s book that I receive at least one email a week touting ways to imbue the workplace with EI or EQ.

Yet despite the many coaches and consultants selling the idea to companies, everybody will still be able to identify at least one, and probably several, managers whose brutalising advance up the career ladder has put “a shell around their heart”, in the words of another of Maccoby’s troubled subjects.

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They persist despite the fact that workplaces are becoming more open to expressions of emotion.


In a speech to an MBA graduation class last month, Accenture North America’s chief executive Julie Sweet described how she started to sob uncontrollably at an unconscious bias training session at the buttoned-up law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore where she was about to be made partner.

woman, presentation, public speaking
A woman rehearsing a presentation at work. (Photo: Unsplash/rawpixel)

The partners sent one of their few female colleagues to check if Ms Sweet was all right. That rings true. At the time (it was 1999, dawn of the EI era), the men were only just shedding their shells. Some probably never did.

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Two decades on, boundaries between personal and professional are blurring. They used to be artificially marked out with rules and policed by managers who had trained themselves not to emote.

But just as the real world now requires different police officers, so business needs different managers.


More like coaches, they are trained to listen and to encourage staff to open up. Employees are urged to “bring their whole self” to the office.

Everybody loves a free therapy session, but there are downsides. At best, a rash of oversharing of personal problems; at worst, stress and burnout as staff struggle to reconcile their inevitable setbacks and bad days with promises of “fulfilment at work” that turn out to ring hollow.

Happily, this new empathetic workplace also comes with a greater awareness of the mental pressures piled on teams and their leaders.

Quartz headlined its story about Ms Sweet “Crying in front of management can make you a better leader”. This seems the wrong lesson to draw and it was not Ms Sweet’s conclusion.

She determined to improve life for women who followed her — in other words, to reduce the likelihood they would one day have to sob out their frustrations.

Crying openly at work can be awkward, obscure your message, and cross a line that, despite the less rigid rules, still exists.

While the range of emotions countenanced at work has widened over the years, every workplace has a “zone of expressive tolerance”, to use a phrase coined by Stephen Fineman, a management professor.

Women in office stressed and frustrated
(Photo: Unsplash)

Leave the zone — too angry as a bank teller, too weepy as a Disney World host, too cheerful as an undertaker — and your manager needs to be ready to step in and gently steer you back to the accepted norm.

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This broader range also requires a wider breadth of managerial skills, as Charles Dickens showed, though he would not have understood the term.

In A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Christmas past shows Scrooge a vision of Fezziwig, his generous first employer. 

Playwright David Edgar enlarged the novelist’s thumbnail portrait into a banquet and dance scene for the Royal Shakespeare Company stage show, heightening the contrast with Scrooge’s hard-shelled meanness to his workers.

In the book, Scrooge recognises with a jolt that Fezziwig had what he lacks: 

He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.

That is fiction, of course. Business is often more Scroogeish than Fezziwiggian.

But that does not change the fact that managers who are hard-hearted corporate climbers no longer have what is needed to deal with the personal laundry staff often bring with them to work.

Source: Financial Times/sl