Overt Emotions and the Workplace

“You would cry too if it happened to you” 

Yes, I might, but I would do it in private because overt emotional reactions to situations do not belong in the workplace. 

Here in Queensland, Australia we have had disastrous flooding recently. The situation has played out like two sides of a coin; one side is full of loss, grief, pain and disbelief; whilst the other side of the coin has seen some inspirational leadership by our female Prime Minister and Premier. 

Anna Bligh, Premier of Queensland (pictured), has been praised for her quick response, rational approach, logical actions, detailed understanding and regular communication with the people affected. The Premier delivered regular press conferences throughout the crisis where she briefed the people of Queensland in a calm, controlled way. 

One recent press conference, amidst the worst of the devastation, she almost broke down. Her voice cracked and her eyes filled with tears as she talked about the strength of Queenslanders. She managed to compose herself quickly and continued. Anna Bligh later apologized for her emotional reaction but I think it only strengthened her position in the eyes of the state. It showed that she really did care. 

This brings me to my point – overt emotions are only ever OK in the face of an absolute emergency in a work situation.  Any other time, it is never OK to cry, shout or show any other type of overt emotional response in a work situation.

If you do cry openly at work it is likely to be interpreted in the following ways: 

  1. She can’t cope with the situation
  2. She could never be a strong leader or role model
  3. She can’t manage her stress levels
  4. She cannot be relied upon
  5. She is not up to the task

Add to this the fact that people will treat you differently after your outburst (they will be reluctant to say or do anything for fear you will get upset) and it is just not worth it. 

Consider this. A male colleague shouts at a team member when he gets angry, stressed, or tired. He lets his emotions take over. A woman who cries in front of a team member when she gets angry, stressed, or tired.  She lets her emotions take over. The situations are not much different yet, as women, we often seem to be much less accepting of shouting than we are of crying. I wonder why?

As women, we cannot afford to cry at work and as people we cannot afford to display any overt emotional reaction to workplace issues and incidents. We do ourselves a huge disservice if we do. If you have to let off steam, I recommend the bathroom as a great place to do just that! 

So, how do you manage your emotions so you avoid outbursts?  Well, that’s another post!

About the Author

Judy Greenslade

I seek the fabulous in everything! As a learning and development professional with flair, I enable people to be their best. And, I have a dangerous shoe fetish which is spiralling out of control.


Vicki Roy

I agree, the bathroom is a great place. Most workplaces I have worked in have been far more accepting of stressed men losing their tempers or being rude to colleagues. Generally people just don’t know what to do with crying.

Lyndal Prime

A great topic to discuss. Recently, our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, also cried in Parliament. I think on the one hand, it humanises politicians and allows us to see that they are people too. On the other hand, if we have feelings about strong emotions, particularly crying, being signs of weakness, we might feel a sense that the leader is out of control. In my own profession (social work), we frequently come across stories and situations with clients that are distressful. Our aim as professionals is to try and convey ‘purposeful use of emotion’ or ‘controlled emotional involement’. The thinking here is that whilst it is important to emphathise with another, to show that you are human and also experience strong emotions, the goal is to remain in control enough that the client never feels your emotional reactions as a loss of leadership. I am comfortable with people ‘tearing up’ in the workplace if it is in reaction to a shared trauma (which the floods in QLD were), but not outright crying – or for that matter yelling, raging, storming out etc.

A great blog post by the way. Very thought provoking.

David bentley

I think that this is an important discussion to have. Remember we are talking about the workplace here (which is distinctly different from the displays mentioned above)where you have a manager/leader-employee situation. If you find it hard to have a serious conversation, then that is about you not the employee. If you find the situation upsetting and get angry or stressed enough to cry-again, you are making it about you. Leadership is not about the leader -it is always about the employee. You don’t have to be a robot but if you are that upset, you need to have think about why because you are demonstrating that emotion to your team member. Crying (or the more commonly male trait) raising your voice or showing your displeasure at a mistake or transgression is pointless, counterprodictive and makes it about the person rather than the situation. This tends to cause more mistakes and a poor relationship. Remaining priofessionally detached does not mean being impassive but rather as I stress in my book (Naked Leadership-www.nakedleadership.com.au), Dis-connecting from the stress of the situation makes a positive resolution easier to find because you remain objective and therfore can be a help rather than hindrance.. Employees want empathy but more importantly confidence and consistency from leaders (especially in difficult times), not someone who wants to wallow with them.

April Kunzelman

I’ve teared up when discussing difficult topics with employees. They have too – both men and women. I’ve been told – by a man – that he appreciated knowing how hard it was for me to have a specific conversation, and that he appreciated knowing I cared. You can say you care all you want, but unless you show genuine emotion to go along with the words, they’re just words.

We’re humans, not robots. Emotions happen.

We tend to avoid conflict at my workplace. This means that sometimes very important topics are not discussed because we don’t want to upset another person. I’d rather discuss the topics and deal with any emotional outbursts, myself. I trust people who are genuine.

When you stifle your emotions, shove them down into some dark place, they eventually come back out.

All this being said, I’ve had to excuse myself from meetings so I could go collect myself. I hate losing it at work. It does feel weak.

Shaun Emerson


At the beginning of the year, John Boehner became our Speaker of the House. He cries, in public, often. I wondered if this very public man could change the acceptance of crying in the workplace for men and women(http://ow.ly/3Xq2I). Like the Premier’s emotional display, I think the cause and the followup to a cry can have an impact on acceptance.


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