Wednesday, February 04, 2009

There is No Crying in Librarianship - Or Any Other Career

Today's issue: tears in the workplace. On this, folks either wholeheartedly agree with me, or think I'm an awful ogre. My stance is this: There is no crying in baseball. Or librarianship. Or in any other career you want to be taken seriously at. Don't do it at work. Really.

(Note: I am not talking about the rare bout of tears that occurs when exhaustion overtakes you because you've been dealing with long illness, when you receive news of a death, that sort of thing. We're human. I understand that. What I'm looking to address here is the issue of tears that occur during professional conversations at work that are not related to: your surprise hysterectomy, your cancer diagnosis, your wife leaving you for the mailman that morning, etc.)

It's quite popular to get up in arms over this issue, stating that a "no crying at the workplace" attitude is inhuman, doesn't take into account the fact that people are human beings, and may have issues outside of work affecting them. I've been accused of being heartless for being impatient and unimpressed with tears when discussing disciplinary issues with employees. While some folks are fine with regular bouts of tears, I and a number of other managers are not, and we do have our reasons. While the choice is yours about how much emotion and sensitivity you choose to display in the workplace, it *does* have consequences. To think that it doesn't is naive and downright foolish.

1. Crying is manipulative. It takes attention away from the issue that needs to be addressed and places it directly on the crier as a personal issue, whereas workplace issues are not personal. They are *work*. If crying is a recurring theme every time your manager wants to meet with you, it may be seen as manipulative and an attempt to avoid necessary professional conversations and criticism.

2. If your way of dealing with constructive criticism of your work is to become overtly emotional, how am I supposed to trust you with larger projects, larger risks, and with presenting a public face for whatever organization we're in? What if I need you to make a report that will be unpopular with the full faculty? The director? The public? I can't, and that's the bottom line, so don't expect to get those assignments. They're going to the non-crier.

3. While I am not asking you to be a complete automaton, I *am* asking you to maintain some professional integrity. No, I do not take you seriously if you cry. If that offends you, I'm sorry, but not really. We can speak about this again once the waterworks are turned off and you can hold a conversation without snuffling and snotting all over the place.

4. It's childish. No, really. If your mechanism for coping is to burst into tears, how the hell are you going to be useful to me when I start dealing with downsizing, redistributing workflows, and other transitions in a crappy economy and stressful times? No thanks.

5. I've heard it argued that my attitude about crying in the workplace is a shame, since people should be free to expose exactly how they're feeling. Um, not really. You are free to express your emotions in a professional manner. Occasionally I want to jump up and down on desks and scream and shake wet noodles at recalcitrant staff - but I don't get to do that. Just like you don't get to throw a tantrum and scream and pound on the floor when you're frustrated, you don't get to bawl at work and still be considered a professional. Nope. And it's highly likely that even the folks patting your back are giving the "omgcrazy" look to colleagues over your head.

6. While I am concerned with how you feel - and by "feel," I mean how our conversation will impact your ability to accomplish the work you need to do - I am not concerned with being your bosom buddy. Do criers take into account how the manager "feels" when a perfectly professional discussion spirals down into tears and incoherent mumblings? How about how that manager feels when they know this is your reaction to what *should* be professional discussions? Like it or not, you're cultivating a reputation with your manager. Even if the manager never says a word, if they cringe every time they have to speak to you, knowing they're going to get the waterworks, you're not doing your career any favors.

I understand that some folks are more sensitive than others, and that some people's natural reaction to being frustrated is to tear up. I've had a number of good friends come to me about this. My heartfelt recommendations:

  • Work is not personal. Workplace criticism should be seen as a chance for you to improve your performance, not as a blow to your self-esteem. If it's the same criticism over and over again, now, don't cry over it. Change your danged behavior. Your manager is not "out to get you." Your manager is out to meet the goals and milestones set by administration and their department. Your relationship with your boss is (and should be) based on how you fit into meeting those goals.

  • Your boss is not your friend. Oh, you can be friends on weekends and at night, you can pal around and do barbecues with the family and all that. But at work, be very clear: you are there to work, and the relationship is different, however subtly. You need to be aware of this, or it's going to come as a shock when your "pal" does your performance appraisal and it's not all rainbows and pillowfarts just because you have a few beers together on Friday nights.

  • Make a list. If you know you get flustered or frustrated easily, and it leads to tears and/or emotional outbursts, be sure to make lists of items to bring up in meetings. This is useful for a number of reasons. You can take notes and concentrate on the substance of the words instead of getting overly upset. If you are in the meeting to discuss your concerns, the list will make sure you address everything you wanted to - it is easy to leave out important items when you get flustered. Keeping a list and notes might also tend to pull you back into a more professional demeanor, since it keeps your hands busy and is a good way to keep yourself on-task.

  • Hold it in. No, really. Wait until you get to the restroom, outside the building, your car, home, the shooting range, the gym, whatever. unless you've got a damned good reason that you can coherently explain, do *not* cry in your manager's office, or at work in general. Really. Does that sound inhuman? Maybe. But how much do you want to be taken seriously? Think about it. If your reaction to interactions at work is to cry, you're either in a very unhealthy workplace, or you've got to learn to deal with things in other ways if you're going to be taken seriously.

You get no kudos from me for knowing yourself so deeply, for being proud of your oversensitive nature and parading it around as a badge of honor that . There are other personal things you don't get to display at work - your fetishes, your bare feet, your skill with flambe - why would you think that emotional displays are any different?

Yes, I realize I'm making judgments here. A library pal of mine whose work I admire would say I'm trying to judge when it is and isn't okay for people to be emotional. And I will nod and say "That's exactly what I'm doing." I'm okay with that, because I firmly and sincerely believe that it is *not okay* to pull that shite at work, and I don't mind saying it.


Theresa said...

Well said Colleen!

Courtney S said...

While I understand your position (and agree with it, for the most part) I do have to say, though, that some of us don't *mean* to cry at work and are still capable of taking criticism and having professional conversations.

In my case, it's an almost purely biological response to overwhelming amounts of frustration, work related or otherwise. And so, the waterworks occur. I'm mortified when it happens, and try *very hard* not to let it happen, but there have been a few occasions where I've had to leave the conversation to get things back under control.

Cheryl said...

sigh, I just heard some of that repetitive "constructive" criticism today myself.

I'm not crying, either.

Meredith said...

I am definitely an emotional person who tends to take criticism to heart. That being said, I would never cry at work (at least not in front of anyone) if I was criticized by a boss, questioned intensely by a committee, or screamed at by a patron. I agree with you that there need to be some boundaries in our professional lives and someone crying at a performance appraisal can not only make a supervisor question an employees' ability to deal with stress, but it creates a dynamic where the supervisor may not feel like s/he can say anything critical to the employee. I've been in some uncomfortable meetings where I was criticized and while it sucked at the time, I've learned from the critiques. When people get too emotional, they often put a wall up where they no longer hear what the other person is saying. Not much good can come from that.

That being said, it's just as important for supervisors to learn how to give criticism and say things in a sensitive and constructive manner. It's not professional to berate an employee and I don't think employees have much respect for supervisors who lose their cool or treat employees with no respect. It can be difficult to learn how to criticize in a sensitive way, and it's something I'm very concerned with doing right as a manager.

Colleen said...

Meredith -
You're absolutely right, and my criticism of tears in this post was given the state if affairs where the criticism was constructive, deserved, and delivered in a professional manner. I think it's an employee's right to expect that from their managers - it would be just as unprofessional (in my estimation) - and perhaps more so, because of the management element and power dynamic - to browbeat someone as it is for someone to respond to a professional tone with tears.

C Rader said...

As a male manager in our profession, I would have to say I have run into the tears more than once. From both directions even (supervisors and supervisees). I do agree that can be see as unprofessional. More to the point, how I cope with it goes a long way to determining the future success of managing or being managed by that particular person.
Managers are always challenged by the human factors that interfere with smooth workplace operations. I guess that's why we are called that.

I would have to contest your point about separation of work place and the personal. Some employees do meld work and personal self worth. Sometimes having the job is VERY important to them, as well as the work that they do. As a manager, it is not my place to tell them otherwise, it is THEIR job after all, but to manage their contributions to the workplace.

Your second point is sound managerial behavior, and simple recognition of the limitations of the 'cryer'. Recognizing and working around the limitations of your staff is part of the job, but also encouraging them and working with them to improve is part of the same. If you are not creating conditions to improve, I think that's poor management.

I usually find it pointless to indulge in judging someone's behavior. Sure, you think it's childish, but unless you have the power to fire or otherwise change your staff, it's what you have to work with. Judging them can make for more difficult interpersonal relations down the road, as well as creating possible conditions that would make termination more difficult, if you have that option. Ever been sued for wrongful dismissal based on prejudicial attitudes? Ever thought about the threat of that if the employee picks up on the manager hating her? Whether or not it was true?

As to your recommendations; 1) I agree but it is not true for all people. Some people will not change and that's that. Also, sometimes a manager 'is' out to get you. I have spent the last five years cleaning up after a previous manager soured the work environment, having inherited some of the longest term employees in the library. One person was indeed targeted by previous management and given years of shit jobs. It has been a pleasure seeing her develop and improve over the time I have been here. And yes, she was one of the criers.

The boss is not your friend is also true, but it is also up to the boss to make sure the lines are clear. After all, you are in the superior power position.

The list making is something I use all the time to make sure I am on point and not distracted.

I have to say I don't agree with the last one. If I have an employee that is so stressed that they are crying at work, I want to know. I don't need to know the specifics, but I don't really need a damned good reason either. They have a reason and sometimes people just need help. If they see me as someone who is able to help them, all the better.

I also want to make clear that I don't think you are wrong for your judgments. It's how you manage and what works for you in your situation. The best manager does what is necessary in their situation with the tools that they have. I have a different approach that works for me. We have different ideas about professionalism. Is there one or is that acceptable?

Sorry for rambling on, but you always make me think, and I have had recent experience with staff stress levels so I have been thinking over contacts and outcomes.

Colleen said...

Rader - You make a number of good points (you usually do!). I agree that how managers deal with emotional outbursts is very important, and also that some folks don't separate work and the personal very well. And while managers can and do work around the limitations of their staff, if emotional outbursts are one of those limitations, then the staff member needs to not feel slighted when recognizing those limitations means that there are certain tasks they're not assigned. That's not prejudice, it's based on prior performance.

As for "judgment," I consider judgment a part of management. You have to know where people's limits lie, and if they demonstrate that they cannot cope with constructive criticism, and they do this repeatedly, then they've demonstrated that they may be unfit for certain projects. that's not judgment, it's management of your resources.

I realize that my way is not the only way, and I make it clear to my staff that I'm ready and available to hear them out if they have problems. But in my estimation, if its something so distressing that you feel the need to cry, you should likely leave work. Work is a place for efficiency and productivity, and emotional outbursts contribute nothing to those endeavors. *That* is coming from a manager's point of view. I'm sure folks feel like they have the right to cry at work if they so choose. What I'm not seeing much of is a recognition that *their* crying has an effect on the manager - people seem to think it's a one way street of the manager affecting them, and that's not true.

Ellie Dworak said...

I agree with what Courtney says above. While it's not a great thing to lose control of one's emotions, sometimes it happens, and sometimes (hopefully only once or twice in one's career) it can happen at work.

There is a lot going on in the human head and heart, and people have many dimensions. So, while I may be professional in 99.9% of situations, I may have triggers or be emotionally vulnerable once in awhile. It happens. Life goes on. We all try to do good work.

I think that a good manager tries to see the wholeness of a person, and their strengths and weaknesses, rather than judging based on a single element or incident.

That said, the abilities to take constructive criticism and to tolerate strain while doing one's job are important.

C Rader said...

Hey Colleen,

Just a final point in response to the two way effect crying has on the manager that has to deal with it. I so totally agree that the crier has little or no cognizance of the effect on the manager. Mainly, I think, because they are caught up in the emotion of their moment. People are selfish that way. Having thought about it and speaking with other colleagues, I recall that my biggest problem was maintaining emotional distance and making sure I was not responding in a manner that would have unpleasant consequences for me down the road. I, too, become somewhat invested in my job and have emotional reactions, mostly when people are not doing what they said they would be doing.

I always go back to a philosophy I used when I was directing plays; I would tell the actors that I was not there to make them do what I wanted, but to share with them a vision of the road I wanted to explore and to help them all roll with each other in that general direction. Worked for plays, works in the library too.

onesharplady said...

This is why I make sure I tell people that I'm hypoglycemic. "Um, if I start acting very immature and bitchy, then start crying five minutes later, I probably just missed lunch. I'm not crazy, I promise."

Yes, it's mostly controllable if I remember to eat. If I get absorbed in a project, though, I tend not to notice time passing and my body sending me signals. That will happen at any job I enjoy, which pretty much ensures that I'll embarrass the hell out of myself at least once.

I'd like to propose additions: Look out for low blood sugar, and don't schedule potentially emotion-filled interactions near lunch.

(Rachel, btw.)

Amanda Clay Powers said...

First, I adore you. My favorite: "it's not all rainbows and pillowfarts." I laughed out loud (of course I'm procrastinating on writing a paper). I love hearing your matter-of-fact voice, and I bet you would be wonderful to work for/with/whatever. Even though I'm not sure I agree with you 100% (I lean toward being the softy-coddler myself), I am so glad you are in this business and that your voice is here.

When is the book coming out?!?