When I worked in marketing, the people on my team would often come into my office and burst into tears. Each time, the same drill: I’d offer tissues, the person would apologize profusely, I’d become visibly uncomfortable, and then I’d bee-line into problem-solving mode. I’m not a crier, and I had no idea how to handle criers.

Then, one day, the tables turned.

In the midst of a heated disagreement with my boss (someone I respect as a leader and mentor), I felt something well up in the back of my throat. My neck was on fire, and I couldn’t find my voice. The tears started pouring down my face.

My boss passed me tissues, and I squeaked, “I’m so embarrassed. I don’t cry at work. I’m sorry.”

“What’s wrong?” he asked awkwardly. “What can I do to fix it?”

His reaction was a page straight out of my own playbook—when my employees cried to me, I went into awkward mode.

Emotions Are Energy in Motion

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What I’ve learned since that day is that when we care about something (say, a big project), it creates energy. And when something happens to that thing (it flops), it sets that energy in motion. The outcome: emotion.

Emotions are part of the human experience—and we can’t pretend that the human experience ends when we open the office door.

Leadership guru Kim Scott explains this well in her book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.

From Scott:


“We are all human beings, with human feelings, and, even at work, we need to be seen as such. When that doesn’t happen, when we feel we must repress who we really are to earn a living, we become alienated. That makes us hate going to work.”


When we try to hide our humanness, we end up drained, disengaged, and even depressed. A 2015 Gallup Study of over 140,000 working adults showed that when employees disengage (when they are checked out and simply clocking in and out), their stress increases as does the chance that they will experience health issues, including depression and physical pain.

Research shows that bringing only half of ourselves to work results in diminished creativity, innovation, and motivation. And I’ve seen this play out in my own experience as a leader and now as a leadership and career coach.

Emotions are part of the human experience—and we can’t pretend that the human experience ends when we open the office door.

In contrast, sharing emotions is good for business. We reevaluate situations or initiate more productive conversations, helping business function more effectively. And being vulnerable with colleagues creates an environment of trust and connection.

But Crying Is Not a Strategy

When I told my mom, a high-powered lawyer, about this piece, she was concerned. She thought that millennial peers might sympathize, but more senior colleagues would look down upon “work criers” with harsh judgment. I could potentially damage careers by encouraging crying in the workplace.

So let me be clear: I’m not recommending crying as a strategy.

One other thing to keep in mind: As with most things in our society, women get the short end of the stick when it comes to emotions at work. There’s an element of sexism that often plays out when it comes to tears in the workplace. Research shows that men who cry at work are often seen as “humanized,” while women who cry can be viewed as weak. But it’s time for this to stop.

We need to stop looking down on people who cry at work, regardless of their gender. With all the stress and time we put into work, we need to recognize that there are times that crying at work is inevitable—again, emotions happen—so let’s not pretend that it’s an unforgivable event that will destroy your career.

But even if you believe in bringing your whole self to work, you may still feel ashamed when you cry. So, how can you allow your emotions in and maintain your professionalism? Follow these six tips.

Six Ways to Approach Crying at Work

1. Know You’re in Good Company

Steve Jobs was well-known for his frequent crying at Apple. Gloria Steinem and Lena Dunham cry at work—and Steinem sees it as a sign of power.

Another famous work crier: Sheryl Sandberg. During her Harvard Business School commencement address, Sandberg shared:

“I’ve cried at work… I try to be myself. Honest about my strengths and weaknesses and I encourage others to do the same. It is all professional and it is all personal, all at the very same time.”

Chances are that if emotions damaged careers, Sandberg wouldn’t be giving the Harvard Business School address, “Girls” wouldn’t exist, and we wouldn’t all be carrying around iPhones.

2. Don’t Apologize

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It’s natural to apologize for having a human reaction—we do it all the time. But when we apologize, we’re feeding the narrative that emotions should remain hidden.

Remember that you haven’t broken any rules. Crying isn’t the same as bullying a co-worker or engaging in intimidating behavior (a type of harassment that’s all too familiar in today’s workplace). Your quick crying spell is probably not hurting anyone or doing damage to the bottom line. The exception: If you’re spending hours in tears or distracting co-workers. If that’s the case, it’s time to seek out help or find a new job.

Your quick crying spell is probably not hurting anyone or doing damage to the bottom line.

3. Have #ZeroRegrets

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After I cried, I kept replaying the event and beating myself up. I began holding back on having tough conversations for fear that I might breakdown again.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized showing my emotions changed the way my boss and I interacted—and it changed for the better. He began sharing more openly with me, and we found that by bringing more of ourselves to work, we were happier and more productive. Our team followed suit.

Instead of regretting an emotional reaction, celebrate it. That moment you were terrified about? It happened—and everything is OK. You are stronger for it, and perhaps those around you are as well.

4. Get Curious

Our emotions don’t appear out of thin air. Your tears came from a place of energy, so what’s that energy? Why did it evoke such a strong reaction?

Motivational speaker Simon Sinek writes, “The value of emotions come from sharing them, not simply having them.” Your emotions are a doorway into deeper learning and growth, for you and for those around you.

By exploring what’s there, you might learn something that will inform your work. You certainly don’t owe anyone an explanation, but it may be useful to let them know what’s going on.

Your emotions are a doorway into deeper learning and growth, for you and for those around you.

Caveat: Expressing emotions doesn’t mean oversharing details of your personal life. It’s one thing to let your colleagues know that you’re going through some challenges in your marriage, it’s another thing to make them your marriage counselor.

5. Adhere to the “Platinum Rule”

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Remember that everyone handles and responds to emotions differently. Your natural reaction may be tears—others may resort to more insular behavior. No reaction is right or wrong—all deserve respect.

We often look to the Golden Rule: treat others how you want to be treated. But in the case of emotions, everyone’s a little bit different. Sandberg suggests using Karl Popper’s “Platinum Rule),” which tells us to treat others how they want to be treated.

If you’re on the receiving end of an emotional reaction, be respectful and acknowledge the other person’s courage. Remember, this person is having a human reaction. It’s not something to stop or fix.

If the person is crying, I urge you not to offer a tissue. If he or she needs one, he or she will ask.

Let the person experience the emotion. If you feel uncomfortable or awkward, offer to get a glass of water and step out to gather yourself.

When you return, ask if they’d like to talk about it. Instead of entering solution mode, get curious about what’s going on. If they don’t want to talk more, respect their wishes. Chances are, after processing the emotion, the person will want to move forward.

6. Be Prepared

Not everyone is comfortable with tears, and there are some who will, unfortunately, view it as a sign of weakness. Think about my mom’s reaction—emotions are still taboo in certain workplaces.

If your boss seems unprepared for your tears, let he or she know what you need in the moment. If you want a tissue, ask for it. If you need a minute, say that. Remember: Don’t apologize for your human reaction.

If your boss seems unprepared for your tears, let he or she know what you need in the moment.

Also: If you know you’re a crier, try to prepare your boss before an emotional moment happens. If you’re running into a stressful experience, try pulling your boss aside and giving them a quick heads up that you're feeling overwhelmed. You may even want to share some information about how expressing emotions can lead to increased productivity and engagement at work. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it—it’s just information you’re sharing to improve your work and work relationships.

Finally, if emotions just aren’t acceptable in your workplace, you’ll have an important decision to make. You may be able to find ways to cope, but for some, that won’t be sustainable. You may need to find a new job where your boss and co-workers are interested in you—the whole you.


Read next: How to Forgive Yourself