The Great Debate: Is Crying at Work Ever Okay?

Business.com / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

After a contestant cried on Shark Tank, she defended her outburst as an expression of passion. When and where are tears appropriate?

We all go into business assuming that crying at work, as Rizzo sang in “Grease,” is the worst thing you can do.

The truth is almost everybody does it, and sometimes it’s actually better to let it out than to keep your emotions stifled.

But there are times and places where crying is more acceptable than others.

Is the pitch room, during the middle of your presentation, the right time and place?

This fall on Shark Tank, ABC’s pressure-cooker reality show in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to venture capitalists, Mikki Bey, a purveyor of eyelash extensions, believed in her product and service so passionately that she broke down crying as it dawned on her that the investors were not going to bite.

Related Article: 10 Things You Should Never Do While Pitching an Investor


Bey appears at 27:00 and gets emotional at 33:25

After her energetic pitch and demonstration, Shark Kevin O’Leary declared her product a service and declined to invest. Bey interrupted with an impassioned pledge. Through tears and in a strained voice, she promised, “If I have to work my fingers to the bone to get you your money back I will get you every penny of your money back.”

The Shark Tank members softened their tone and encouraged Bey to pursue her dream, but still declined their financial support. Barbara Corcoran, founder of a successful real estate company, added: “I love the emotion, but you’ve got to give up this crying stuff. The minute a woman cries you’re giving away your power. You have to cry privately.”

Bey answered immediately, “I think it takes a lot of strength to show this type of vulnerability,” she said.

While Bey’s outburst seemed more genuine than a ploy to manipulate the investors’ emotions, the show is called Shark Tank: applicants know they’re entering infested waters. Crying to the sharks didn’t get her anywhere, but it did open up a conversation about women in business that she continued on Huffington Post, in “I Cried On Shark Tank Last Week, and I'm Not Sorry.”

Crying makes us human, not just female. Crying does not discredit all of a woman's potential and accomplishments. We are supposed to be able to lean in, thrive and learn to use the power of vulnerability -- but for goodness' sake, DO NOT CRY!

Bey cited examples of powerful women who admit to crying in the workplace, including Sheryl Sandberg and Arianna Huffington herself, and a moment when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton cried during an appearance. Even Gloria Steinem, the poster woman for female power, in an interview published in Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s newsletter Lenny, insists that it should be okay to cry at work.

We try to stay in control too long and then burst out. Instead of saying what we're angry about in a reasonable way, suddenly we just explode. A woman who was an executive told me once that she got angry in work situations where she needed to get angry, cried, and just kept talking through it. She had mostly men working for her, so it wasn't so easy to be understood. And she would just say to them, "I am crying because I'm angry. You may think I'm sad. I am not sad. This is the way I get angry." And I've always wanted to do that. It's still my goal.

As women assume more powerful and visible roles, it follows that acting like a woman will be more acceptable and part of business life for those who come after them. However, it’s not only women who cry at work. In fact, in one study, Ad Vingerhoets, the world’s leading researcher on the subject of crying, found that men were more likely to cry at work than women. At least, men who are psychotherapists.

For both men and women in the workplace, showing emotion doesn’t have to be forbidden. Now is a time, even in high-stakes fields like tech and finance, when showing your humanity is much more common and embraced than ever before. Here are some occasions when crying in front of your colleagues isn’t so bad:

When You Are Suffering a Personal Crisis

If you are going through a health issue or dealing with major life changes (death, divorce, etc.) nobody expects you to maintain a smile or a poker face at all times during business hours. This is truly a time when you are only human, and keeping your work in perspective is a wise move for you and everyone around you.

In the Face of Bad News

On September 11, 2001, I arrived at work on the West Coast where my job that day was to write a documentary about an 80’s teen sitcom star. As the news of thousands of deaths unfolded, nobody in the building - cutthroat executive producers to the most entry level mailroom clerk - had a dry eye. In fact, we all went home.

More recently, Hurricane Katrina, a string of public shootings, controversial arrests and killings by police, historic national elections, and any number of tragic or moving local events can affect a workplace and bring out emotions that are difficult to set aside in the moment. To ignore the vibe and keep your head down to crunch numbers can actually make you seem heartless and rigid.

When Your Passion Overflows

Mikki Bey said it. Gloria Steinem said it. You feel an emotion about something at work so intensely: your belief in a project, your conviction that one way is better than another, your support of another person, your disappointment at a failure, your triumph after a success. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. You just cry.

In all of these scenarios, it’s okay to cry or even just get choked up as long as you are stable most of the time. If this is your daily MO, your credibility may indeed suffer. Nobody cries all the time every day if they are operating normally.

And if it’s happening in the wrong place, with the wrong people, that can hurt you, vulnerability be damned. Bosses, investors, the voting public want to believe that they are relying on a strong person to carry their project through, make a successful business, or lead the people. Crying when you are receiving criticism or a rejection can be a telltale sign that you fold under pressure and this can impair your chance of future success with that person.

Related Article: To Infinity & Beyond: Harnessing the Power of Positive Thinking

In Mikki Bey’s case, the investors on Shark Tank had already made up their minds, so crying on Shark Tank didn’t hurt her case but it certainly didn’t help it. An entrepreneur seeking funding from hardened investors would do well to remain confident and positive even in the face of rejection. After all, there are more tanks and more sharks who can be approached with the same pitch.

Besides, as O’Leary says, “Don’t cry for money. It never cries for you."

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