“WeLead” is our women’s leadership program that is quickly turning out to be our flagship development program because of the impact it is creating with women and their managers. While working with young women leaders we often encounter the perception among women that, to be seen as effective leaders they need to be professional. Being professional means staying focused on work and showing no emotions. They fear that the moment they show any of their emotions, especially tears, they will be labeled as weak and lose out on leadership positions.
In one of the sessions of the program, we read excerpts from Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. In the chapter Seek and Speak your truth, she talks about being authentic while communicating. There is a point in this chapter where she shares an instance during her early days in Google, when she got upset about some ongoing issue and had a crying bout when talking to her boss. She goes on to talk about how it is ok to bring your whole self to the workplace. The women in our program are amazed when they read this paragraph. To hear someone of Sandberg’s caliber and professional stature to say that, suddenly shifts the conversation about their own instances of when they cried, about feeling completely embarrassed, miserable and weak. They have always been told that crying at work is a sign of weakness and now when they hear that crying is a natural response to being upset, it is a revelation.
We also work with the managers of the women participants to make them their partners in development. One of the key areas we spend time on is helping them with authentic feedback to their women team members. Most managers whether male or female say that they find it difficult to give direct feedback to women because they fear that women will get “emotional and cry”.
Among all the emotions one gets to see at the workplace, crying has a strong negative association. When a woman cries she is labeled weak, and when a man cries he is labeled sissy. Aggression on the other hand doesn’t get such a strong label, in fact sometimes it is interpreted as assertiveness and is seen as a virtue and leadership quality especially among men. One doesn’t need to be a gender studies expert to see that a “feminine” quality is seen as weak and a “masculine” quality is seen as a positive.
During one of our meetings, a manager expressed about the inadequacy he felt dealing with a colleague who had a cried in a meeting. He said “I had no idea how to process it. I realize now that there are many instances when members in my team get upset and raise their voice, I forget those instances in few hours, but when someone cries I take it home with me”. It was a powerful reflection on the need to have a way to process these two reactions.
It was my son who was 9 years old then, that brought clarity to me on this topic. One day he came home from his play time and complained about a girl who cried often. I wasn’t happy about the way he stated it and hence pushed him back saying that he too cried many times and I had seen his other friends cry as well. To which he responded saying that when boys get upset they shout and fight, but when girls get upset they cry and run away.
It was as simple as that. Shouting or crying both come from the same deeper emotion of being upset. They are different responses to the same emotion. We have normalized anger, aggression or shouting more than we have tried to understand crying. Recent spate of incidents involving Uber and other venture capitalists in the Silicon Valley are strong proofs of the culture this has perpetuated.
When we ask the participants to look back at the instances they cried and ask them why they did so, every instance reflects a time when they were deeply invested, passionate about something and then it did not go as they expected. It emanated from a space of complete engagement and was not a flaky response to a situation as many managers seem to think.
As managers, we want our team members to be motivated, enthusiastic and energetic. We don’t want to deal with frustration, anger or sadness at workplace. Similarly, as team members we expect our managers to be positive and motivating. We don’t want to catch them angry or upset over something. There is an expectation all around, always to be our happy self. Though we know deep within that our real self has good days and bad days. Days when we are joyous and moments when we get deeply upset.
Every emotion has an outer response. As managers, we are able to handle and process certain kinds of responses and not the other. When we recognize that all the varied types of responses, from shouting to crying, emanate from the same interior space and for similar reasons, we can begin to cultivate the leadership maturity to receive and process the humanness present in the situation.
There is no reason to be ashamed of crying, there is no reason to make it a habit either. Whether you are a woman or a man, crying is perfectly ok when it happens.