It was instant devastation the day I cried at work in front of one of my employees!  I was very new to a management role and it had been a very long week of dealing with an emotionally exhausting scenario.  I was obviously wearing it, because this employee asked me if I was okay and I completely lost it.  I had kept it together all week, and that one simple question led me to my breaking point.  In my haze of devastation and sobs, I profusely apologized to this staff member, and I will never forget her response….”Leaders can cry too”.   GASP!!!  I had never been faced with this before!  I have always encouraged open communication with my employees and have always viewed crying at work to be a sign of passion and trust…. but not by the leader of the organization!  This was a first for me and it left me questioning whether showing my emotional side was right or wrong!   

So I did what any new leader would do….I asked more seasoned leaders the question “is it okay for a leader to cry at work” and I received feedback from both sides of the debate:

Leaders should NEVER cry at work:

Many believe that being in control of your emotions at work communicates to your team that you are a strong leader and gives you more power and control over any situation.  A few of the people that I spoke with communicated that they were often in fear that their emotions may undermine their professional authority and would be perceived as incapable of handling their high-pressure job.  I have found this fear is especially real for women who feel an increased pressure to prove themselves as being confident, professional role models.  A colleague suggested that when a leader cries, they give away power, and women do not have the extra power to give.  She admitted to sneaking out of meetings for a good cry in the bathroom or closing her office door when she starts to feel emotional, but never to be witnessed by anyone.   

Another woman I spoke to suggested that crying at work, especially in front of male counterparts, is the most humiliating professional mistake that can ever be made.  She explained that a female leader could easily lose their executive presence and credibility in the workplace by simply crying once.  For this reason, she told me several stories of how she let her emotions fester at work, which lead to several unhealthy relationships, both personally and professionally. 

In general, the leaders on this side of the debate believe that a leader should never let their emotions get the best of them at work.  It should always be about business, never personal feelings, even if it means your loved ones pay the price when you get home from work. 

It’s okay for Leaders to cry at work:

A few of the women I spoke to on this side of the debate were very much in support of the belief that a good cry at work can be healthy.  One leader suggested that in a “safe” and healthy workplace, crying is seen as a powerful and strong emotion and only creates and sustains a close-knit team who will always have each other’s backs.   A colleague who in her own organization has created an extremely healthy culture, talked about the importance of open and honest communication, and that means the occasional happy and/or sad cry at staff meetings.

I also had extensive discussions with leaders around the importance of a good self-care plan that includes the need to not let your emotions get the best of you, but also not allowing them to fester within.  It’s not a leaders job to make sure everyone around them feels comfortable all the time.  A good leader will make their own health and well-being a priority and in turn will create and sustain a team who is accepting of a good cry once in awhile.

Even though it can be stressful to show your emotions at work, it can also have positive upsides- including professional growth opportunities and the chance to “get it off your chest” and improve your mind-set at work.   Many of the people I spoke to suggested that when a leader lets their guard down and shows a bit of their human side, the workplace becomes stronger and more compassionate…and I couldn’t agree more!

I used to think that crying at work (especially as a leader) was by far the biggest professional mistake ever…until the day that I did it, and I have to tell you how pleasantly surprised I was to actually feel so much better!  To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s okay to cry every time you are frustrated, challenged and don’t get your own way.    What I am saying is that you’re only human and leaders can cry too!