Crying at Work: What’s that About?

Blog, Coaching, Millenials, workplace

Recently a friend of mine, who leads a national organization, surprised me with this question: “What’s the deal with all these millennial women crying at work?” Being a coach, I wanted to launch into a conversation about why it seemed to bother her. But she is my friend, not my client. So, I asked her simply, “What do you do when it happens?”

“I tell them just to stop it!” she said.

To which I responded, “So how’s that working for you?”

“Not very well.”

As a woman of a certain age (baby boomer), I completely get what unnerved her about the free expression of strong emotion in a professional setting. Baby boomers and even Gen Xers were taught that sharing your feelings in the workplace was no-go. “There’s no crying in baseball,” and that goes for technology, sales, consulting, health care, and so on. We were told suck it up or pay the consequences, which included some, or all, of the following: no promotion, bad reviews, lower compensation, no possibility of moving into leadership and, of course, getting fired. It’s interesting to consider that while women were being punished for being too emotional, men who yelled, bullied and were easy to anger were often rewarded for their emotional outbursts (but that’s a whole other blog post).

In a recent post on, McGill University associate professor Karl Moore wrote that millennials consider emotions to be as important as thoughts. Senior managers, he explains, need to learn to accept and acknowledge this perspective in order to lead millennials effectively.

While I agree with the general premise of the article—allowing people to show up as their whole selves sets the stage for a safe work environment where creativity and ingenuity thrive—I think Mr. Moore leaves out some essential pieces of the emotional puzzle. Pieces that can help managers, like my exasperated friend, embrace emotions in the workplace and find opportunities to empower teams and create community.

First, a word of caution: This is not an invitation to let emotions fly. Be intentional about when and how you address emotion.

1.  Acknowledge the emotion. “Hey, Jill, I see you’re upset, what do you need?”

2.  Ask Jill to give you the facts. This is essential. It is not cold or unfeeling to ask an upset employee to summarize the circumstances, as they understand them. This gives a person space between what they know is true and how they feel about it. It’s also an opportunity to discover that the emotional response may be based on a false assumption or interpretation. If an employee doesn’t have all the facts, it’s a great opportunity to share information that has not been clearly communicated.

3.  Once you have acknowledged your employee’s feelings and established that you agree on the facts, ask them to tell you what they want. Follow up with a question about how they might achieve that end with passion and commitment rather than allowing their anger or frustration or worry to run the show.

4.  Then, and only then, circle back to the team’s goals, and ask them to take some action toward the greater mission. This step helps transform a challenging emotional moment into an opportunity to empower and engage the individual.

5.  Call a friend to lament—or to celebrate—the demise of tamped-down office culture!

keywords: managing millennials, workplace etiquette