Do you remember the last time you teared up at work? What triggered the floodgates in your eyes? No doubt, crying at work is still labelled as unprofessional and weak by most people.
So to have Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, publicly say that it was okay to cry at work is an acknowledgement that we can be human after all.
People don’t simply tear up for no reason. We do experience meltdowns in highly competitive and stressful workplace environment. A case in point – Amazon – as highlighted in The New York Times in Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.
More commonly, people tear up when their personal lives intersect with their professional lives. With current work trend, where the lines between work and life are blurred, we might find it a challenge to separate them.
You may have experienced tearing up on these three levels.
1. In private
We cry in private when it’s something not necessarily related to work. How many of you teared up after reading Robin Williams’ death in Aug 2014? I did.
Our despair could also be work-related, but we do it in private because we believe that everything is under control. At that moment, we simply need to get what we’re feeling off our chest.
2. In front of a trusted colleague
Oftentimes, we need a shoulder to cry on. However, a 2011 research headed by Lauren Bylsma of the University of Pittsburgh concluded that who sees you cry can make a difference in whether crying helps or worsens your emotional state.
Thus, it’s vital to find a colleague who can give you an emotional anchor (a hug or listening ear) without being judgmental, and not someone who makes you more vulnerable after a crying episode.
3. In public
This is a rare occasion and it happens when news that affects the majority of the workplace is made known.
An unexpected passing of an affable colleague, or news of mass redundancy are just two examples of what can send waves of overwhelming emotion across the organisation.
In those trying times, decision makers should consider bringing in professional grief or career counsellors to help employees cope.
As empathetic leaders, don’t be quick to draw conclusions if you inadvertently catch your employees cry, especially if no death or job loss is involved.
Instead, give them room to gather their composure before approaching them privately to really listen to what may be causing their tears.
An article in the UK’s Independent featuring the science of tears summed it best: “Tears are a positive representation of who we are. It demonstrates not only our deep emotional connections with our world – past, present, and future – but allows us to visibly celebrate that fact.”
Perhaps that is what this portion of song lyrics mean in Teardrop by Massive Attack:
“Water is my eye, most faithful mirror, fearless on my breath.”
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