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Is it ok to cry at work?

BEING passionate about your job is an asset. Being overly emotional and unhinged in the workplace is a liability.  Maintaining a clear distinction between the two can be vital to maintaining professional credibility and a positive reputation.

For women, who have traditionally been typecast as emotional and at times irrational, it can be particularly difficult to avoid certain actions being judged through this lens, regardless of how inaccurate this may be.

Reviewing feedback on over 1000 female executives, US-based Flynn Heath Holt Leadership found male colleagues commonly perceived these women as being “hyped up” or “overly emotional” in situations where the female executives themselves felt they were merely “advancing their cause” or expressing an opinion passionately.

Does the risk of such a reaction mean women should take notes from heavily guarded alpha male leaders? Absolutely not. A leader who fails to demonstrate passion, forsaking natural human emotion in favour of a poker faced, hard-nosed approach, denies themselves a powerful tool in business, and also creates an incredibly difficult and unnatural ruse to maintain.

A 2017 study led by a marketing professor at the University of Kansas, found emotional, rather than rationalised responses to failure, are a better indicator of future success. It compared two groups of students, with one group encouraged to focus on how they felt after a failed task, while the other was required to rationalise their failure. The study found that the individuals encouraged to embrace their emotions were more likely to do better the next time.

This is just one example of how an honest approach towards emotion can be highly motivating and serve as a source of professional growth. Cassie, a participant in one of my leadership workshops, shared her story of crying publicly as a 25-year-old new recruit in publishing. Her talent and capacity for hard work quickly became known and she was loaded up with extra projects. One of these involved reporting to an editor who had a reputation for being demanding. Disappointed by the progress of one project, she unleashed a scathing attack, telling Cassie to step up and toughen up, bringing her to tears. Despite feeling humiliated, Cassie kept her head held high, and rather than damaging her reputation, the incident prompted respect from her new co-workers, showing how much she cared about making a good impression and doing a good job. She has gone on to become a successful editor herself, no doubt far more empathetic towards new recruits than her earlier editor.

Like Cassie, some of the world’s greatest leaders derive much of their gravitas from an ability to display passion and emotion while remaining strong and purposeful. Emotions are an integral part of being human, and a leader who isn’t afraid to show them builds trust and respect, while motivating and inspiring their team.

A mastery over emotions, part of what’s popularly dubbed emotional intelligence, is a skill that can be practiced.

One way to ensure you use passion and emotion to your advantage is to rehearse arguments you’re passionate about, to ensure they come across in the most coherent and effective way possible. Showing you’re passionate about something isn’t, on its own, enough to secure buy-in from colleagues. Build an argument passionately, incorporating factual justification, and you’re onto a winning combination.

Self-awareness is also crucial. Check in with why you feel so strongly about a particular matter, and be aware of the difference between reasons which are justifiable in a broader business context, and those which are purely based on furthering your own interests. 

Part of being an effective leader involves creating an environment where passion and enthusiasm is encouraged. In the latest Nike ‘dream crazier’ ad campaign, Serena Williams highlights gender bias surrounding displays of emotion, saying “if we show emotion, we’re called dramatic… when we stand for something, we’re unhinged.” Be conscious of situations in the workplace where such double-standards may arise, and, if necessary, call them out.

Displaying empathy, and developing strategies to harness the individual strengths and interests within your team will not only create a more effective work environment, but also, a much happier one.