Posted on June 6, 2018

Morning Buzz by Kirsten Wyatt

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Full admission that I’m a crier. Kent once accused me of ruining an entire ACC basketball tournament championship game because I was gulp-weeping while reading “Me Before You” by Jo Jo Moyes while he tried to watch the game. I’m a big book crier… but I also cry during movies, commercials, sporting events, and when I see random acts of kindness or hear exciting news.
So, it’s no surprise that I’ve cried in every job I’ve held, starting with my first job at Dairy Queen when I was in high school (during a busy lunch rush when my supervisor told me I was too chatty and therefore didn’t have a future in food service…), to my current job as ELGL Executive Director (during a recent heated discussion with the board about my compensation…). Studies show that 41 percent of women and nine percent of men have cried at work, so I know I’m not alone.

My Buzz today is about crying at work and to offer some perspectives and ideas about what to do if this has happened – or does happen – to you in your local government workplace.

There are a ton of articles out there about crying at work. Some are positive – “it’s okay to be vulnerable and show emotion” – and some are negative – “you lose your position of power when you cry.” Here’s a wide assortment:

A common aspect of these articles is that they all treat crying like an affliction or disease. Like it’s contagious, or will affect other people in a hugely significant way. I did a Google search of “farting at work” and there are almost no real articles about the labels or stigma that it might cause the farter… unlike a crier who almost certainly is branded for life with the title.
So, given that all evidence points to workplace crying as a career-defining issue, I want to share how I’ve coped with crying, and ways to manage if you’re also a crier. (And if you’re not currently a crier, how to prepare in case you become a crier – which can happen later in life, even if you weren’t born that way.)

Own It

If you read over the first paragraph of this Buzz with a knowing nod, you’re probably a crier too. And if you know that about yourself – own it. Recognize that you wear your emotions on your sleeve, and that you show emotion easily. Knowing this about yourself is the first step in preparing yourself for a workplace cry.
For me, emotional books always make me cry, so I know that I shouldn’t sit in the work break room at lunch and read a tearjerker. That’s just common sense.
I know that I’m more prone to cry when I’m tired, and so getting enough sleep is also a common sense approach to not being the workplace crybaby. Take a look at when you cry, and then mitigate those situations when you’re at work.
I also know that I cry when I get frustrated – for me, workplace tears rarely surface out of sadness or meanness (I can deal with a bully), and instead manifest when I’m so frustrated that I run out of other emotions. Sometimes, you can also anticipate this type of crying. If you’re headed into a frustrating meeting or interaction, preparation and mental role-playing can help. However, for me, my workplace crying has been when a frustrating situation has caught me completely off guard.

Talk About It

The first time I cried in front of my mentor, it was after a very frustrating phone call with a community member and when I was newly pregnant for the first time. He was less awkward than he could have been (he had teenage daughters, which is always a great training tool for city managers) but was also really confused: crying wasn’t something he was used to from an assistant city manager.
We talked about why I cried – which helped me pinpoint “frustration” – and I also admitted that I was a crier. He was cool with it, and it was useful to have him in my corner so in future meetings and interactions, he became an ally if he saw me getting frustrated or needing to take a break to collect myself. He didn’t hold it against me (again, probably because of those great daughters of his) and instead recognized it as part of who I was and what made me a dedicated public servant.
Not everyone has the luxury of an emotionally aware boss. Or, you might report to a council or board so individualized understanding of how you process things might not be possible. If you find yourself in a situation where revealing your emotional IQ isn’t accepted, you can instead build a network to talk about things like: crying at work… how you process difficult situations… showing emotion on the job.
Too often, we assume that workplace “networks” are for business or procedural matters, but you can also use them for the soft, squishy stuff where bouncing ideas off of people help you do your job better. (Want me to be part of your network of criers? Email me.)

Let It Go

Crying happens. If it hasn’t happened to you, it has likely happened to someone you know. I know it will take huge cultural shifts to normalize crying, and I’m not of the impression that this Buzz will do that in local government workplaces.
But we can start by recognizing crying is something that happens in workplaces when emotions run high and people are passionate about their work – just like most city halls and county buildings. Here’s a quote from an Atlantic article that I really like:

The only solution, it appears, is to normalize office crying for everyone. Not unlike other unpleasant things, crying happens. Men shouldn’t reap the unfair advantage of a mid-meeting misting, and women shouldn’t worry that on top of their own embarrassment, they’re being judged as manipulative and incompetent. It’s 2016, and American workers are trembling under the weight of all their stress. Enough with the sniffling behind bathroom stalls or pretending it’s allergy season. If we can’t stop judging our colleagues when they cry at work, at the very least we should stop judging ourselves. 

I’m particularly bad at letting go the unsavory things that have happened to me – crying at work included. But, I’ve found that by talking about it, joking about it, and recognizing it (more about that next) – I’m able to let it go easier and take the stance that crying happens.
That helps me shift my focus to: what am I going to do when an employee or coworker cries? How will I react? And, will my first instinct be to judge them?

Harness It

The last point I want to make is that we can either look at emotions as anathema, or as our own personal superpowers. Like any superpower, wearing your heart on your sleeve can be used for good or for evil.
Yes, crying all the time at work is a bad idea. (If you cry all. the. time., I’m not talking to you.)
If you occasionally cry because you care deeply about your organization, your work, you coworkers – chances are, these strong emotions also show themselves in your commitment, your empathy, and your focus.
Recognize that you have the ability to emotionally connect and engage with people, which is a critical element of effective management and leadership. Harnessing that emotional intelligence is extremely powerful. Using it for good will reap far more benefits than the temporary discomfort of crying at work.

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