Why you should never apologize for crying in the office

Oh, tech. You adorable, idealistic, inconsistent beast. Tell me again about how much you value passion.

Let’s talk about the workers who stay at the office so they qualify for free dinner. Let’s laugh about the time yourwhole team got baked at the office with Snoop Dogg. Let’s recount the zillion times you celebrated the blurring of professional and personal boundaries.

As an industry, we have limitless appetite for these stories. They are the folklore of modern tech companies. We lean on passion as a core value for tech workers but we are highly selective in our recounting of these stories.

We must be passionate about our work to the exclusion of other aspects of life (relationships, dining at home, sleeping, etc). We never talk about how being passionate about our work means being emotional about it.

This seems so strange — that we show up with passion in spades but are meant to leave all other feelings at the door. Be passionate, but heaven forbid you’re sad or upset or overwhelmed when a high-stakes project doesn’t turn out as planned.

Passion is inherently emotional

Tech is always leaning on passion as a positive but the minute someone cries, suddenly it’s all “Can someone call for leaky eye socket cleanup in the third floor conference room?”

As an undergrad, I landed a paid internship with a huge multi-national company. It was a big deal. It was a make or break your career type gig. And the role was exactly what I’d been studying in school. Except when I started the job, I realized there was a huge gap between theory and practice.

I was working alongside people who had spent their whole careers in the field. I had passion out the yang but I had very few practical office skills.

I spent those early days on the verge of tears, terrified that I’d embarrass myself in front of my professional heroes. I went home and cried every day for the first two weeks.

At my core, I cared about doing a good job. I was passionate about the industry and I had a lot riding on that internship. I lucked into some amazing mentors and by the start of the third week; life started to get much better. I was able to understand (at a basic level) how what I was learning in school applied to the workplace. I started to find my groove.

Crying at work vs. crying about work

I’ve had people from all walks of life cry in 1:1s. The first thing they usually do is look up, red-cheeked, and then look down at the floor and apologize.

“I’m sorry. I’m fine. Really, I’m fine. It’s ok. I’m just…”

When I first started managing people, I didn’t really know what to do. If I’d been more experienced, I probably could have sensed it coming. But in the early days, I was caught off guard more than once.

We’d be in the middle of a discussion about a project or a program or something totally unrelated and suddenly, the person I’m talking to is crying.

Shit. Now what?

The first few times someone cried in a conference room with me I froze. I waited for them to finish and I rushed to get back to neutral and unemotional ground as quickly as possible.

After a couple years of managing people, a pattern started to emerge.

There were people who were crying about work. This is often where passion and emotion are closely linked. These folks take it to heart when a project isn’t working out or when they are stressed about missing a deadline. They are invested in the organization’s success and they hold themselves to a high standard.

And then there were people who were crying at work about totally non-work things. These folks had a whole bunch of life happening outside of work, and that didn’t disappear just because they walked into the office.

We bring our whole selves to work

The at work vs. about work breakdown helped me understand: we bring our whole selves to work.

If you have a sick parent, that emotional load comes with you to the office. If your kid is having a hard time at school, it’s on your mind. If you got cut off in traffic, annoying and insignificant as it might be, that too contributes to your emotional state when you sit down at your desk.

My two weeks of crying at the big multinational? My internship started two weeks before my summer sublet was available. I decided to crash with friends and commute from the end of the subway into downtown every morning (We’ve talked about it before. I am not a morning person.)

Was I upset because the internship was kicking my ass and I was trying to learn a whole slew of new skills all at once? Yes. Was I also out of sorts because of stuff in my personal life? Yes.

There are people who are crying about work and there are people who are crying at work about non-work things. For both groups, it’s important to recognize that it’s all intermixed. Because we’re humans. And emotional complexity is what we do.

There’s no need to apologize

This idea that we show up as complete and emotionally integrated people at work isn’t novel but it was a breakthrough management moment for me. I no longer wanted to run from tears in 1:1s. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t uncomfortable.

And I no longer felt like people had anything to apologize for.

So I started with that. When people were looking at their feet, I’d make eye contact and say, “you don’t have anything to apologize for.”

No seriously, don’t apologize

We have all these hangups and stereotypes about what workplace tears mean. We have this idea that crying is weak, that there is no place for it in an office. The more time I spent with this idea, the more I found myself wondering about all the other types of behaviour that we condone in tech.

Where did we get this idea that yelling in an office is fine but crying is way out of bounds? How is it that when my former boss punched a wall in anger, he felt no compunction to apologize for lashing out? But when one of the recent grads on my team starts to well up, she’s instantly embarrassed and apologetic?

Getting high in the office, punching walls, yelling. Tears seem like the least of our problems.
Except tears are gendered. So is yelling. So is punching.

Women, young women in particular, are more likely to be the ones crying in the office. And older men are more likely to be the ones perpetuating overt aggression in the office. One of these creates a hostile work environment. The other does not.

Do not apologize. You have nothing to apologize for. The only reason you feel like you do is because of a legacy of gender bias in the workforce. This bias was designed to overvalue hyper-masculine traits.

You bring your whole self to work. Your ability to feel sad or overwhelmed or upset is what keeps you from throwing chairs when the going gets tough.

Crying isn’t weak. Punching walls is.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour

Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. She is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Melissa’s been a startup warrior since the first dotcom boom and has the branded t-shirt collection to prove it. She has held senior leadership roles in marketing, pr, and strategy at several fast paced startups, including Wattpad, Edmodo, and Mozilla. Melissa moved to Toronto after more than a decade of working in senior tech roles in Silicon Valley. She is gradually adjusting to seasons.