Does crying at work mean you’re incompetent?

Susy Kohout, Montana State University and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women, explores the perceptions surrounding crying in the workplace.

There always seems to be some news story making the rounds about women in STEM and whether they have what it takes to succeed. One of the common arguments supporting the idea that women are not as competent as men is the idea that women cry more often. Crying is often presented as an automatic disqualifier for success in science. If you cry, the thinking goes, you couldn’t possibly design a cutting edge experiment or successfully manage a lab. Instead, you are perceived as weak or overly emotional.

Our society looks down on perceived weakness and crying is definitely considered weak. Women have been called “the weaker sex” for centuries. Really though, crying is a normal physiological response to emotions. Some people cry only when sad or upset; others cry when happy. Crying in a professional setting is often thought of as a career killer. If you cry at work, the perception is that you are unstable or incompetent. In reality, a wide array of emotions may come up during working hours – especially in times of stress. For many people, crying is a normal release valve for these feelings.

If you are crying at your lab bench every day, it may be a good idea to think about why that is, and consider seeking help from a mental health professional. We are all human beings first and scientists second. As human beings, we sometimes need help. There is no reason to be ashamed of asking for it from an expert, just as we go to our colleagues who are experts in other fields when our research takes us in new directions. More commonly, crying at work is a result of normal stress or frustration. Getting upset at failing experiments or interpersonal conflicts is completely normal.  We have all been there. Remember, those tears are not a sign of incompetence.

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So, what should you do if there are tears at work? I have been the one crying and I have been on the other side, watching as someone is crying in front of me. Neither side is comfortable. In my own experience, acknowledging the situation is a helpful way of moving forward for both parties involved.

While in many cases, someone crying in the workplace would like nothing more than for their colleagues to ignore the tears, ignoring the situation is not always the best course of action. I prefer acknowledging the tears, particularly if I’m in a conversation when the tears start. I ask whether the conversation should be rescheduled. If the person crying says yes, then I postpone the conversation. If they say no, then I proceed with the conversation without the added concern of the elephant in the room. That acknowledgement and offer of a reprieve often goes a long way to helping the person in distress calm down. Acknowledging—without judgment—a person’s need to express his/her feelings can lead to a more positive outcome than leaving them to cry in silence, assuming their colleagues are judging them as weak or overly emotional.

The next time you encounter someone crying, acknowledge the crying as a natural emotional outlet rather than a sign of weakness. You’ll be surprised how your own reaction can improve an uncomfortable situation. The next time you find yourself becoming emotional and crying at work, recognize that it is a normal response and don’t berate yourself for it. Instead, figure out the cause, address it and ask for help if necessary. Empower yourself.

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