I've always had a hard time holding back tears. I get weepy in animated films like "Tarzan." I constantly have to dry my eyes at friends' going away parties, and yes, I've cried at work. It's never intentional, but sometimes you just can't help it. According to conventional wisdom, this is a serious career no-no. But judging from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's Class Day speech at Harvard Business School last week, I'm in good company.
Sandberg spoke to HBS's Class of 2012 about her thoughts on expressing emotion at the office. She said:
I don't believe we have a professional self from Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time. That kind of division probably never worked, but in today's world, with a real voice, an authentic voice, it makes even less sense.
I've cried at work. I've told people I've cried at work. And it's been reported in the press that Sheryl Sandberg cried on Mark Zuckerberg's shoulder, which is not exactly what happened. I talk about my hopes and fears and ask people about theirs. 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.
I don't think she was arguing that we should all walk around our offices weeping and sharing our deepest darkest secrets, and obviously every workplace has its own culture and its own definition of appropriate behavior. Additionally, as Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan points out, Sandberg -- as the COO of a majorly successful company -- is speaking from a place of pretty substantial authority. (It's her company, she can cry if she wants to.) However, Sandberg's point that we should (somewhat) blur the lines between our "professional selves" and our "authentic selves" seems relevant to Americans in a whole variety of fields.
The research on shedding tears at work has been a mixed bag. In January 2011, an Israeli study showed that "there are few situations where crying is 'acceptable,'" Forbes reported. And UC-Davis professor of management Kim Elsbach, who studies crying in the workplace, told Forbes that women who cry at the office felt ashamed about doing so, and believed that their actions may have cost them opportunities to advance professionally.
However, through interviews with a total of 700 working men and women, journalist Anne Kreamer, author of the 2011 book "It's Always Personal: Emotion In The Workplace," found that women were significantly more likely to have cried at work than men were (41 percent vs. 9 percent) but that it wasn't necessarily a dealbreaker for success. "People at all levels of management had cried at work, dispelling the notion it's career suicide," Kreamer told The Grindstone.
Kreamer's survey also found that women judged other women who cried just as harshly as men did -- if not more so. In a March 2011 interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show, she attributed this to attitudes leftover from decades past. "I think women carry ... baggage [from] when we went to work in the '60s ... of having [to] 'man up,'" she said. "Now being 50 percent of the workforce, we have an opportunity to step back and say 'can we change that behavior'?" As women continue to enter (and stay in) the workforce in increasing numbers and in increasingly powerful positions, perhaps our workplaces will continue to adjust. A recent survey of hiring managers found that "emotional intelligence" can actually now work in your favor. Essentially, acting like an emotionless automaton doesn't necessarily make you a more qualified professional.
Considering how much time many people now spend at work, making in-office self-expression more acceptable makes a lot of sense. (I absolutely spend more time around my co-workers than the vast majority of my friends.) "In today's society, we are working 24/7, giving our hearts and blood to our jobs," Kreamer said on the Today show. "We want to have value there, we want to have our emotions connected. It brings out the best in us." And for some of us, that "best" includes a few tears.