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Compassionate Leadership: Embrace Tears At Work


Boldly Unbounded in Tears at Work


 

Hello, you Boldly Unbounded Soul ✨


I biked home as fast as I could—up the Wiggle in San Francisco—only to burst through the door and dash to my bed. I collapsed on it, weeping uncontrollably. I had been holding back tears all day for fear of judgment and shame. The storm raged in my body, and I tried to push it back down. Denying its existence and trying to convince myself to be ‘tougher.’


But I didn’t need to be tougher. I desperately needed a full release in a space where I felt safe to cry. To be vulnerable. To be honest.


And honestly? That wasn’t an unusual day for me. That was my go-to response early in my career when work demands became unbearable and my self-imposed pressure brought me to the brink of a breakdown. Or as Brené Brown puts it, a spiritual awakening.


After many spiritual awakenings, I decided I had had enough. Today, I’ll share what I’ve learned over the past decade, and how you can embrace your tears as a leader.



 


BRING ON THE TEARS: WHY THEY HAPPEN


But first, what are tears and why do they happen? We have three types of tears:


  1. Basal tears. They act as a shield for your eye. They block dirt and debris by lubricating, nourishing, and protecting your cornea.

  2. Reflex tears. These tears wash away harmful irritants and can help fight bacteria. Think smoke in your eyes or the all too familiar onion tears.

  3. Emotional tears. They’re a response to the emotions you experience, from sadness and joy to fear and exhilaration. Some research has found that emotional tears can flush stress hormones and other toxins out of our system. Others have found that crying is intrinsically linked to our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, either emoting distress or acting as a soothing mechanism.


The first two types of tears are socially accepted. The third? Not so much, especially in the workplace. It tends to be viewed as “unprofessional, weak, emotional, or [ fill in the blank ],” in many workplaces. Fortunately, it’s changing.



 


COMPASSIONATE LEADERS CRY


Emotions have been at the forefront of work and leadership in recent years—catapulted into the spotlight with the arrival of COVID. The question, “Is it okay to cry at work?” has been questioned more than ever. As a People & Culture Leader, this question has been at the forefront of everything I do for nearly a decade.


Why? Humans are emotional, and humans make up companies. Understanding how humans ‘work’ is a core competency of the job, from how psychology informs giving recognition and feedback to coaching C-Suite through change management and the impact on the team. Emotions are the foundation of high-performing, high-compassion teams.


So, what have I learned over the past decade? The most extraordinary People Leaders and C-Suite didn’t shy away from emotions. They learned how to emotionally regulate in some moments and cry in others. They understood how authentic vulnerability could increase trust, boost psychological safety, and reduce attrition rates.


Plus, studies have found that when people view leaders as empathetic, they’re more innovative, engaged, and productive at work.



benefits of empathetic leadership
Source: Catalyst


 


OUTDATED SOCIAL CONSTRUCTS STILL CONFINE US


But today’s social constructs still limit emotional expression and tend to default to a “white male standard.”


For example, companies perceive masculine-associated emotions like competitiveness, greed, and pride as good for the company’s success and tend to reward the associated behaviors. The new trend of tech layoffs is a prime example. Data coming out shows that layoffs disproportionately affect marginalized communities.


“Men hold nearly 75% of tech jobs, and approximately 80% of executive positions in tech companies are held by white male workers. These statistics are linked to data showing that 40% of companies don’t even consider women candidates for interviews. LGBTQIA+ and disabled workers also face significant discrimination and barriers to working in tech…. Among the world’s largest 500 companies, 10.9% of senior executives are women. In contrast, women hold 52% of entry-level or “non-essential” roles in finance, which are the first to be cut during layoffs.”

Another example? Male leaders can be rewarded for angry outbursts whereas female leaders are punished. Female leaders’ competence and mental and emotional stability are questioned. They also face microaggressions like being called bitchy, hysterical, or emotional and are blocked from promotion opportunities.


But this also negatively affects male leaders. Research has found that male leaders are punished for expressing emotions, especially crying. The shift needs to happen in leadership to truly serve all genders.



 


NAVIGATING TEARS AT WORK AMONG SOCIAL CONSTRUCTS


My call to you: be courageous and challenge the status quo. Embrace your authenticity, lead with executive presence, and cry sometimes. First, remember you’re not alone, and emotions are part of the human experience.


  • Research indicates that 45% of professionals have cried at work.

  • A survey of over 2,000 senior executives discovered that 44% of C-suite leaders believe occasionally crying is okay, and 30% believe it has no negative effect on your professional standing.

  • Decades of research has proved that 20% of people are highly sensitive. If that’s you, you likely think and feel everything deeply—from others’ moods to your environment. This trait is associated with stronger activation in brain regions related to emotional meaning-making, empathy, awareness, integration of sensory information, and readiness for action.



When You Cry at Work


How can you develop a healthy relationship with crying at work? Here are four ways:

  • Know when to stay or go. Do you excuse yourself to cry in privacy or do you stay and cry with others? It depends. If you need a full release as I did, excuse yourself so you can let the tears flow in a safe space. If there are a few tears that reflect a challenge, mirror others’ emotions in the room, or can deepen trust, welcome them.

  • Explain why it’s happening. Most people struggle with ‘difficult emotions.’ We’re not taught how to recognize, relate to, or just sit with emotions deemed negative or difficult. Great power lies within courageously communicating difficult emotions. The next time you cry, explain why you’re crying, name the related emotions, and model vulnerability to deepen psychological safety. Imagine your company is planning a layoff. You could say, “I want to be transparent with you all. I’m invested in our company’s success and care deeply about our team. I know a layoff is tough and has a big impact on people’s lives. That’s why I’m experiencing an emotional response, particularly grief and sadness for those who will be impacted.”

  • Remember judgment from others isn’t about you. If others judge or criticize you about crying, it’s their own beliefs, self-judgment, and suppression of emotion. It can also reflect a lack of emotional intelligence and compassion. Speak up and share the data on the benefits of empathetic leadership.

  • Forward-looking follow-up. If you’re worried this may impact your next performance review or promotion opportunity, follow up post-conversation with a summary of the next steps to mitigate recency bias. Imagine the layoff scenario again. You could follow up in Slack with, “Hi, all! I appreciate your feedback in today’s meeting and truly value the trust we have created in the team. I’m confident we will overcome this challenge and grow stronger from it. As promised, here’s a recap for next steps so we conduct the layoffs in the best, most compassionate way possible [add bullet point list of next steps + owners].”



When Someone on Your Team Cries


It’s only a matter of time before a team member cries in front of you. I’ve experienced it quite a bit as a people leader and coach. Here are 3 things you can do when someone cries:

  • Give them space. If a team member starts crying in front of you, hold a safe space. Stay silent for a few breaths to let them cry. Then ask them how you can best support them in the moment. Maybe it’s taking a break or letting them share what’s been going on before shifting into problem-solving mode. Also, thank them for their vulnerability and for trusting you. It can be embarrassing to cry in front of others, and they may feel a lot of shame around it.

  • Follow up when needed. Follow-up isn’t always needed, but if emotional responses (like crying) become regular, follow-up is key. It’s a symptom of something deeper. Get to the root cause to help resolve where appropriate. Ask open-ended questions and use the 5 Whys to find out what’s happening below the surface. Ask how you can best support them as well.

  • Recommend resources (you are not a therapist). While work may contribute to tears, a lot may be happening outside work. Recommend resources that might be helpful. For example, we offered a mental health platform called Oliva at my previous company. It offered 1:1 therapy, manager support coaching, online workshops, and resources, free of cost to our team members.



 


MY TOP ADVICE: EXPAND YOUR WINDOW OF TOLERANCE


What if tears often lurk in the shadows, waiting to pounce at every inopportune moment? It’s likely indicating that you’re outside of your window of tolerance. Wait, window of what?


Coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, your window of tolerance is the range of intensities of emotional experience you can comfortably experience, process, and integrate. Every person has a unique window of tolerance for daily stress and challenges, heavily influenced by chronic stress, childhood trauma, or developmental stress. The more stress or trauma, the narrower the window may become. It’s your nervous system’s response to protect you.


But our nervous system’s protection response is shaped by saber-toothed tigers and living in the wild. While it’s well-intended, it’s not always helpful with modern-day stressors. You’ll unlock your ability to lead boldly when you can return to, expand, and stay in the optimal arousal state of connection and safety as often as possible.



window of tolerance


Step 1: Reflect on Your Window of Tolerance


Here are some questions you can ask yourself to reflect on where you are today:


  • When you’re in your window of tolerance:

  • How do you feel in the body?

  • What emotions do you notice?

  • What helps you to stay there?

  • What kinds of experiences move you outside of your window of tolerance?

  • How do you feel in the body?

  • What emotions do you notice?

  • What do you do to cope?



Step 2: Expand the Window of Tolerance


The window of tolerance can fluctuate daily, based on things like stress and tiredness. In the beginning, observe your window and how it changes day to day. Then, start to experiment with different practices to return to your window of tolerance and expand it over time.



Ready to transform your tears at work? My challenge for you is to put what you’ve learned into action:

  1. Pick one thing that can change everything for you—in leadership and life—and create an action plan.

  2. Need support? DM me your plan on LinkedIn, and I’ll check in with you in a couple of weeks to see how it’s going.



See you next week with some big news ✨


Rachel's sign off





 

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