Top Female Execs Tell Us Whether It's OK To Burst Into Tears At Work

Sheryl Sandberg - 60 MinutesFacebook’s Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave a speech to Harvard Business School in which she said it was OK to cry at work.

Work can be stressful, and people do cry. That goes double in the advertising business, where clients can be capricious with deadlines and creative types often have huge, fragile egos (and the tempers that go with them).

Not everyone agrees with Sandberg that the occasional meltdown is OK. When someone starts sobbing at their desk it can bring the entire office to a halt. It’s tough to ignore. People want to know: Has there been a death in the family? Is work too stressful? Is this person unable to handle the job?

Crying at work has, traditionally, been regarded as a weakness. It’s especially something that men don’t do. 40-one per cent of women have done it, but only 9 per cent of men.

So we asked a handful of senior female ad execs in the agency biz what they thought of the issue.

Before we get to them, here’s what Sandberg told Harvard:

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.

We spend a lot of time in the workplace where we are passionate and committed to doing great work and receiving recognition for a job well done. This creates a variety of emotions and on certain days, some people just need a good emotional release that can include crying.

During my first year out of college, I worked in an entry level role for a very tough person. I knew I would learn a lot and that she would potentially make me cry - as she had done to others. And cry I did one day! But it was the greatest release, and from that moment on, I was stronger in dealing with her as well as with challenging situations.

So if crying is what you need to feel better and move on - and maybe even make a statement (help - I'm exasperated and at a breaking point!) - then cry away. Just don't let it become habit forming.

For all the management speak and matrix slides, we forget at our peril that organisations are primarily emotional organisms and that people are emotional creatures. This goes way beyond a question of women - it is about organizational emotional intelligence in general. For someone to cry in the workplace (for work-related matters) could be for any number of reasons; we are socially awkward around crying, but it has an evolutionary, bio-chemical and social importance of its own. Some are authentic and legit - e.g.because the pressure has become too much, they haven't been acknowledged for their hard work, they are bullied - all of which are valid feelings, regardless of their source, and which hold productivity back. To clear out this tension and to move on can be useful to people even beyond the cryer. It is a public, physical statement of the underlying emotional tension and as such can be cathartic.

Leadership in particular is about making an authentic stand that others relate to. And crying could be a powerful part of this, at the right moment. True leaders mine their own experiences for the universal stories that will speak most directly to people. When they do this right, we are all left feeling that we are being addressed individually. For staff to know that their leader has been extremely affected by something could be a powerful part of how they bring people with them - as long as the feelings are authentic.'

They say crying at the office makes you look weak and should be avoided at all costs. When crying at work is the result of a work-specific issue - performance, stress, or the result of a business interaction with a colleague, I tend to agree. Crying over those things does make you look weak and, while I hate to admit it, tends to happen more with women than with men. As business professionals, we need to be able (regardless of gender) to separate business from emotion on a day to day basis.

However there are times when crying at work isn't about those practical things, but rather is a visceral and empathetic reaction to a big human event. I have seen both men and women cry over the necessary layoff of a friend or a deeply valued employee, a move that may fundamentally change the tone and culture of the company. I have cried myself when announcing the death of a young employee to an entire company, something no one should have to do. In these instances, and others like them, NOT crying is the thing that can make you look weak. Because no matter how good at being pragmatic business leaders we become, we all fail when we stop being human.'

It's OK to cry at work. In fact, in such a demanding field with hectic schedules and constant changes, a breakdown is not out of ordinary. BUT It's about knowing when, where and who to go to when you just have to let it out and paying it forward when the next woman knocks on your door after a crappy day.

That's why it's so important to have 'your girls' at work: the women who will take you into their office and support you without judgment. We are lucky to have this unspoken bond with our fellow females in the workplace. We have an advantage, in fact. How often do you notice that type of emotional support among men?

YES — Jackie Stasi, president, founder Nuance Marketing:

Some of the common attributes of female leaders that are cited in multiple articles, including a great recent article in Forbes, are aspects like empathy, intuition and sensitivity. Also it's a widely known fact that leadership teams with the appropriate gender balance have a broader perspective on issues and therefore tend to be more successful. All of that being said, if all of those benefits of female employees and/or leaders come in a package that's slightly more emotional and human, I think it's worth tolerating some occasional tears.

Yes, it's OK to cry in the workplace. Even the strongest people and the best leaders are human and we all have feelings, thresholds of tolerance, and moments of weakness. It is not natural to have to control emotions to perpetuate an unevolved cultural norm. To me, crying -- in moderation -- sends a signal that a person (boss or employee) is in touch with his/her feelings and is not afraid to show vulnerability, which is what creates authenticity and helps people connect at the most basic human level. Connection and humanity in the workplace help breed trust and, as a result, productivity. While I certainly wouldn't recommend crying as a strategy to breed trust among colleagues, we're only human and it's OK to show that.'

Some women have an overly negative view of themselves ...

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