Should You Trust a Woman Who Cries at Work?

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Oct 8, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Last week on Shark Tank, a female business owner was counseled by Barbara Corcoran (one of the “sharks”) that she needed to “give up this crying stuff.

She added, “When I get a woman who’s crying, I refile her in my head in terms of potential because I don’t trust her in terms of keeping a cap on her emotion.

As a highly sensitive person myself, and a total crybaby, I have to say I kind of thought Corcoran had a point.

I cringed during that scene. It was painful to see entrepreneur Mikki Bey on the verge of losing it while trying to convince the Sharks that her business was indeed scalable and worthy of an investment. I literally turned away from the television in embarrassment, waiting for the moment to pass, and quickly.

But another “shark,” Lori Greiner was unfazed, saying that crying at work isn’t always a no-no. It just depends on the person.

One of the real problems of course, is that female persons are already generally perceived as “too emotional” for business. Crying just doesn’t help.

It’s called “emotional inequality” (you read that right)

Last summer, Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield (Grenny is a co-author of the bestselling book Crucial Conversations), presented research that assertive women are judged more harshly in the workplace than assertive men, and that this bias (“emotional inequality”) causes a forceful woman’s perceived competency to drop by 35 percent and her perceived deserved compensation to drop by $15,088.

Grenny and Maxfield also revealed a skill they say women can learn and use to reduce this bias by 27 percent.

Oh boy. I don’t know if I’m ready to jump on the emotional inequality bandwagon, but I do agree that men in the workplace are prone to judging women’s show of emotion as negative while blithely ignoring their own emotional footprint.

“But her husband doesn’t make much money …”

I’d been promoted to management and my direct report hated me. We’d been peers, and now we weren’t, and things weren’t going well. I like to believe the ensuing animus took us both by surprise, but perhaps that’s wishful thinking.

In any case, in month five or sixth, I told my boss, “I can’t take this anymore. She’s incompetent, and she has a bad attitude. This can’t go on.” By now, I’d tried repeated counseling and coaching (including hiring an outside coach), and it just wasn’t happening.

My boss’ response? Something along the lines of “I think your emotions are getting the better of you. It’s not that bad.”

Say what? I had data. Employees were complaining about this woman’s work left, right, and center. Mistakes were beginning to characterize her performance. And did I mention the stinky attitude? I’m pretty sure I did.

My boss continued. “I’m just concerned that if we let her go, she won’t be able to make a living. Her husband is a (fill in blue-collar position that boss presumes doesn’t pay well).” (Yes, I remember the job, but I’ve given enough identifying information for one day.)

I couldn’t believe my ears. So, I said:

And you’re calling me emotional? Your emotions are stamped all over this situation. You think it’s OK to keep a non-performing employee on board because you’re afraid her husband doesn’t make enough money?! How is that relevant? If she cared as much about her finances as you apparently do, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Then I asked the boss whether he’d tolerate from me the stuff he was telling me I should tolerate from my direct report.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

So, eventually the boss relented, but I never forgot the conversation. Emotional inequality. Hmmm. Maybe it’ll grow on me.

Mixed signals and miscommunication

Grenny and Maxfield aren’t the only ones to present compelling research on this topic. In How Women Can Show Passion at Work Without Seeming ‘Emotional,‘ Kathryn Heath and Jill Flynn report:

When women fervently sell an idea or argue against the consensus, for example, we’ve seen that male colleagues or managers say things like, ‘She was too hyped up’ and ‘She was emotional,’ whereas the women themselves say they are simply advancing their cause or expressing an opinion, albeit passionately.”

One bad result of the perception mismatch? Women have a harder time being heard at meetings, or they have to spend significant amounts of emotional labor (how’s that for irony?) getting their point across. Unless you think only the men in your organization are capable of solving your problems, you can appreciate the downsides of this situation.

Good tips for women AND men

Heath and Flynn suggest that women do the following to minimize miscommunication, and I think the tips are good for both women and men:

  • Be intentional — Deliberately use your passion as a tool.
  • Know your audience — Use numbers with numbers people, for example.
  • Use other tools of influence — Remember to call on experience, creativity, and logic to make your point, not just emotion.
  • Support what your gut is telling you — In other words, don’t be shy about validating your feelings out loud by saying things like, “I feel passionately about this subject because …”

As for me, I’ve heard enough. Time to go somewhere private and have a good cry.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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