Managers really need to manage themselves, I declared when interviewed recently about the fact that Apple founder Steve Jobs sometimes cried in front of staff.
I admire the fact he did (though I suspect a lot of it had to do with his perfectionist streak) but believe there are times when people in charge must hold it together, particularly in times of crisis.
Otherwise, there’s mass meltdown (which, granted, can be cathartic on occasion). Bosses bursting into tears can release much pent-up bad air in the workplace but a moody leader prone to crying jags creates a tipping point where staff begin to lose confidence.
It’s a delicate balance: one must be human, but not temperamental, [and] able to read others’ and your own emotions.
That’s what I profess, in the interview and throughout my working life. I never cry in front of staff or lose it in front of clients (true), and pride myself on considerable self-control in the face of many challenging situations.
In the interview commended the late Steve Jobs for his emotional honesty, tempered it with advice about refraining from excessive displays… and just three hours after the interview, I broke my own rule of a lifetime and absolutely lost it.
An undesirable outburst with tears – on the same day
It was to do with an unexpected communication with a supplier, with whom I normally have a good relationship. Owing to the sheer amount of jobs I’m juggling, facilitating workshops in Singapore where I am now, my partner unwell and back from hospital, and the fact this supplier chose this day of all times to suggest my communication was confusing, something unexpectedly snapped.
I had no idea it was coming but the the next moment I exploded in tears and had to hand the phone to a colleague. Fortunately, through presence of mind and calmness, she rescued me (and my supplier friend) from doing irrevocable damage to a positive business relationship.
Wow – the power of suggestion implanted in my head “if Steve Jobs can cry at work, so can I!”
The circuit breaker needed a circuit breaker
I’d always prided myself on being the circuit breaker in acrimonious or stressful situations (partly through training and my usual disposition), but this was one of the times when the circuit breaker needed her own circuit breaker!
I’ve calmed down since then (most of us eventually do) but I’ve had a big re-think about tears in the workplace.
Sometimes we face a “perfect storm” in our lives. You might see it coming a long way off, but at other times, it happens in seconds. The “storm” could be the accumulation of months of hard work and expending of energy, coupled with things going wrong at home.
Either way, the lightning strikes and BAM – those thunder clouds are whacking into each other and down comes the rain. Everyone stares aghast but there’s little you can do to stop it. In seconds, those around you are drenched.
What can you do if this happens?
- You may be lucky as I was and have a trusted circuit-breaker step in and prevent you lashing out. This can be vital in tense working circumstances because solutions need to be reached and teams must be held together. I saw a new side of my colleague and was really impressed!
- Recognise that you may be failing to delegate – hence the explosion. Sensible delegation is the leader’s role, rather than always saving everyone and being the hero.
- Debrief with the receiver as soon as you are calm. Take responsibility and apologise, even if they contributed.
- If your tears are not because of work but occur while you’re there, leave the scene (if possible) and go somewhere private to have a big scream and cry. Even if you’ve shed tears in front of colleagues, ask to be excused before too much is said or seen. Not everyone understands what led to this outburst. Being on your own, you can calm down at your own pace, without the scrutiny of others.
- Don’t be ashamed of your tears – it’s not the fact that you cry (crying releases tension after all) but how you pull yourself together and go forth once more, which matters. Most people won’t condemn a display of emotion but there may come a point when they feel things are getting excessive, particularly if this happens rather frequently. Even if you feel justified in being upset, allow other people’s defences to have some space and work on self-calming. There will be a meeting point between you all again before long.
- If you’re becoming upset frequently, this may warrant some introspection. What is really bothering you? Do you need to take a break? Or seek some help? Don’t wait until things become too much for you.
- Know that if it’s happened to you, remember what others are going through when it happens to them. Show your support in unobtrusive, thoughtful ways.
Understanding and experiencing the above teaches us to be “riders on the storm”, whether we are leaders, managers or employed in other ways.
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace. See the rest of Eve’s blogs here.