“Situational Crying” – An Effective Way to Build Trust?

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, made news recently when she admitted to crying at work during a speech at Harvard Business School. Sandberg said,

I’ve cried at work.  I’ve told people I’ve cried at work. And it’s been reported in the press that ‘Sheryl Sandberg cried on Mark Zuckerberg’s shoulder’, which is not exactly what happened. I talk about my hopes and fears and ask people about theirs.  I try to be myself – honest about my strengths and weaknesses – and I encourage others to do the same. It is all professional and it is all personal, all at the very same time.

My colleague, Maria Capelli, sent me and several other colleagues a link to this article which prompted an interesting email discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of showing emotion in the workplace, especially from a leadership perspective.

Maria said that “Being vulnerable, not only as a leader but as a fellow co-worker, can help build trust.  Being real/authentic can help build credibility.  I am not saying we should all start crying at work – it’s situational. As long as it’s not disruptive or frequent, I think it’s perfectly healthy.  And besides, suppression of our emotions for long periods of time cannot be healthy for the mind, body and soul.”

Our colleague, Susan Fowler, co-author of our Situational Self Leadership training program and our soon-to-be-released program, Optimal Motivation, mentioned that the real “F” word in corporate America is “feelings,” and the interesting paradox leaders are faced with when regulating their emotions: Is not crying when you want to a form of self-regulation, or is crying and owning your emotion a form of self-regulated courage to be honest in the workplace?

I agree that a critical part of building trust is being vulnerable and authentic, and sometimes that involves showing emotion in the workplace, within reason of course. I think Susan brings up an interesting connection between self-regulation, managing emotions, and being emotionally intelligent. My experience is that people who are emotionally intelligent and good at self-regulation have the ability to express the appropriate emotions at the appropriate time. Those who are challenged in those areas seem to be the ones that go overboard which leads to being known as emotionally unstable and unpredictable. Being reliably consistent and predictable in your behavior is a key component of developing trust with others.

Emotional intelligence is a critical success factor for succeeding in today’s business world. A recent survey by CareerBuilder showed that hiring managers are increasingly looking for candidates with high EQ’s because they are more likely to stay calm under pressure, handle stress better, and approach workplace relationships and conflict with greater maturity and sense of perspective.

There’s no doubt that showing the proper amount of emotion, in the right place at the right time, can be a key to building trust. The key is for leaders to develop the emotional intelligence and maturity to properly discern when the timing is right and when it’s wrong. As my colleague Maria said, “it’s situational.”

14 Comments on ““Situational Crying” – An Effective Way to Build Trust?

  1. I agree more than 100%. I work in the logging industry and I urge contractors and crew leaders to be real. I feel emotional intelligence and emotional honesty builds trust which strengthens the crew to tackle the challenges of doing business in the woods.
    What I find in the woods is the historical tough guy, stiff upper lip “I” can do anything attitude. I try to coach my leaders to share what the reality is, it’s scarey and together “we” can get it done. When this honesty takes place you can see a transformation of the entire crew, not just in their relationship with the crew supervisor or owner, but between themselves. A little emotional honesty can strengthen the crew and save time and money.
    I have heard it many times “There’s no crying in logging” but I disagree wholeheartedly.
    Thank you for this wonderful post that will hopefully bring awareness to an important element of building strong teams, whether in the woods or in the boardroom.

    • Hi Wendy. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. What I hear you saying is that we need to be our true selves at work, and sometimes that includes sharing the emotions that we all have. It’s not a matter of being macho, stoic, or any other stereotype that’s appropriate for a given role/industry, it’s about being authentic…which is easier said than done!

      Thanks for sharing your insights.


  2. This blog post triggered a physiological response in me…my heart is pounding. Another thing for leaders to consider is, how they, as leaders, handle a direct report who cries to them. Do your direct reports feel better or worse when they leave your office? I have cried to a boss once in my entire career, under extenuating circumstances, and the leader’s reponse was very damaging. It still affects me in the workplace today, leaving me emotionally shut off as a defense mechanism (and obviously little trust in that leader). I’m so very glad you brought up this important topic Randy!

    • Thank you for your comments! I think it’s unrealistic for leaders to expect employees to turn off all their emotions when they come to work. What I took away from Sheryl Sandberg’s comments is that leaders need to embrace the “wholeness” of their people and not shy away from expressions of emotion in the workplace…within reason of course. I’m sorry you experienced such a negative reaction from your leader and would encourage you to not let one experience color your entire outlook.

      Take care,


  3. Thank you to Sheryl Sandberg for her honesty, and to you and your colleagues for the dialogue, Randy. I will admit to situational crying. In a career spanning a couple of decades I can count the situational crying on one hand. A couple of times when employees shared with me either their own terminal illness or that of a family member. Once in a lay-off, I’d talk with associates and afterwards close my door and cry. That was a long day. I also attend work related weddings and funerals from time to time, and they both get to me. And I will admit to a few incidents when my cool down walk around the building included a few tears.

    I laugh a lot at work. I’ve been known to sing a little in the privacy of my office, while I work late in the afternoon. I bring my emotions to work. At times that has included situational crying.

    Here is my question, is it accepted more because I’m a girl? Or, am I viewed as weaker than my male counterparts because I am real?

    • That’s a great question Beth. My hunch is that crying at work is more socially acceptable for women than it is for men, but I don’t think that’s any different than societal expectations (or stereotypes). I’m curious what others would have to say.

      Thanks for your insightful comments!

    • I think you bring up a great point Dave. I think there are certain cases where a person cries in order to manipulate others or a given situation. I know that I’ve personally experienced that as a leader.


  4. This is an excellent article that gives even more credence to the idea that authenticity is critical to leading with legitimacy. My only disconnect was with the title–the title lead me to believe that you were suggesting real emotion be used as a “tool”. Once I read the article, I didn’t think that’s actually what you meant.

    • Hi Terry. Thank you for the excellent feedback. I can certainly see how the title could come across as using emotion in a manipulative manner, which is interesting given the point that Dave Ryan made in another comment.

      As you could see from the article, I intended the title to be a play on the idea of authentically expressing emotion at the right time, in the right place. It was also a play on the title of our flagship training program, Situational Leadership II.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Take care.


  5. Got it–now it makes total sense! Thanks for taking the time to clarify. T.

  6. Absolutely its about being emotionally real, whatever that entails. My wife has just been told she has cancer for the second time. I cry at home, on the plane. Sometimes I cry at work. My family is great. My people are great. I don’t have to try to hide, pretend, just because I am ‘in charge’. Because of that, I get support from all over, i find myself motivating others, because our mantra is: we’ve beaten it before, we’ll beat it again. I am telling my people this, they are sometimes crying a little themselves, then they are going back to their desk and applying the same attitude to their work problems. Real emotion is part of life, so it’s certainly part of leadership, i think. I don’t know how things will turn out. But I do know we are going to use very atom of our energy to make the journey positive. That way we will never be beaten, while we’re still living.

    • What an excellent attitude and perspective to have Gordon! Your words put this issue in the proper perspective. Best wishes to you and your wife for a successful recovery.


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