Tears at Work: Natural but Taboo

The Complexity of Connection. As one of my research participants explained, in most workplaces where masculine workplace values dominate the culture, you are expected to “leave your feelings at the door” when you come into the workplace. I have always felt that tears are a natural expression of a wide range of emotions, from intense joy to deep frustration or disappointment, as well as less extreme emotional reactions, such as a release in response to the pressures of deadlines. Both men and women shed tears at work, but because of our socialization, women tend to express emotion more easily and tears come more often for them. Anne Kreamer’s study found that women cry in the office more than men do—40 percent of women cry compared with 9 percent of men. I feel sad, though, that so many of my female clients feel they must suppress their tears at work. They have sometimes been told by supervisors that they are “too emotional.” When I ask why they think they should stuff down their tears, they have many answers:

  • They will be seen as weak if they shed tears.
  • They will make their male colleagues and bosses uncomfortable.
  • They will be seen as irrational and out of control.
  • They have been told that you can’t be a leader and cry.
These reasons have never made sense to me. Expressing a full range of emotions is part of effective communication and authentic leadership. When women (and men) have to choke off their tears, they are choking off their ability to fully and authentically express themselves and they are suppressing their voices. Here are some ideas for what to do when your emotions and your eyes well up at work.
  • Keep breathing, rather than trying to choke your tears down by holding your breath. You will probably find that if you keep breathing you can continue to talk.
  • Explain to your coworkers that you are fine and that your tears do not mean you cannot participate in the conversation or meeting. Explain what you’re feeling (frustration, joy, or whatever) right now; these feelings are probably very relevant to what is going on. Just keep talking if you can.
  • Excuse yourself and step out if you need a break because your emotions are really strong; then come back when you are ready. Explain your actions and pick up where you left off, thereby demonstrating that people can cry and not become dysfunctional.
Being authentic makes you a stronger leader, not a weaker one. When you are authentic, people will trust you more and become more comfortable with emotions—maybe even with their own. We are, after all, all human. Where do you stand on this issue? Write to me and let me know.]]>


There’s an expectation that you check your feelings at the door. “Hey, this is the workplace!” It’s not that men don’t cry, but women are more likely to cry when you hurt their feelings in the workplace, and I think it’s really hard to cry in the presence of a man. If you must cry, ask a woman friend to meet you in the restroom and cry with a woman.

Once again, women are set up to be disappointed by each other in the context of the masculine workplace if they expect empathy and emotional engagement from each other, and some women are trying to play by the rules of the masculine workplace to get promoted. Many women in this study, as well as in my consulting and coaching work, have told me how important it is that they not cry at work. Why? Because they will be seen as weak? They will make men uncomfortable? Tears mean you are irrational and out of control? You can’t be a leader and cry? These reasons have never made sense to me. Expressing a full range of emotions is part of effective communication and authentic leadership. When women (and men) have to choke off emotion, such as those expressed by tears, they are choking off their ability to fully and authentically express themselves and are suppressing their voice. We will all benefit from working together to change this norm. An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

Who Am I?

Differences Make a Difference—Part I Women are not all the same. I write and give talks about women in organizations, but I know that generalizations about women are inaccurate. Of course, we are all different, but I agree with Joyce K. Fletcher and other researcherswho say we also have experiences in common as women in organizations. I believe we may all benefit from better understanding our commonalities as well as our differences. However, it’s complicated. Our individual experiences in organizations are influenced by how gender interacts with race, class, ethnicity, level of employment, sexual orientation, nationality, and even personal history—just to name a few possible variables. One concept that has helped me visualize the ways all these differences interact is the metaphor of a hologram or prism offered by Evangelina Holvino, a scholar on this topic. Holvino suggests that we imagine a prism with gender at the core and many intersecting sides representing race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and nationality. The prism is transparent, and as we turn it we see not only all the differences simultaneously but also each angle displaying a particular combination. Placing gender at the core helps us focus on how gender influences many of our experiences in organizations. Gender is central, according to Dr. D. Lynn O’Brien Hallstein, because “women have been systematically devalued and excluded in all capitalist patriarchal systems.” Rotating the prism can help us explain ourselves to others and understand one another. For example, to tell you more about who I am, I would rotate the prism to focus on aspects besides gender that are important for you to know about me:

  • I am a white woman.
  • I am in my 60s (but see myself as about 45).
  • I am Jewish.
  • I am upper middle-class.
  • I recently lost my mother.
I can describe myself in many more ways: For example, my grandparents were immigrants. I am a heterosexual. Different aspects of my prism come into focus at different times. I rotate my prism to convey what’s important to me and where my sensitivities might be at any particular time. Why is this important? Placing gender at the core of our identity has value because gender connects many of our shared experiences in organizations. The paradox is that we cannot truly connect around a shared identity as women until we can also understand and acknowledge our individual differences. The place to start is with understanding ourselves. What facets of your prism are most important for someone to perceive to understand who you are?]]>

Why Women Have to Smile More at Work

Lean In when she described some excellent research by Heilman and Okimoto: “When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” I thought about this research when I read a recent New York Times newspaper article with the headline, “In Memoir, Hillary Clinton Emphasizes Her Softer Side.” I stopped and did a double take when I saw this headline. I wondered if, based on the harsh reaction Clinton triggered in many women and men during her 2008 campaign for president, she has been advised to do the equivalent of “smiling more”—or showing her softer side. So much research has been done now on what some authors call “the likeability factor,” including that recorded in Babcock and Laschever’s book Women Don’t Ask, that we have to take the gender difference seriously. It may seem unfair that women are held to a different standard of leadership behavior, but it seems to be a reality for us at this point in time. It’s not that women have to get “fixed,” it’s that different gender stereotypes mean we sometimes have to act differently to be successful. Here are some approaches that have worked for my clients:

  • They smile more than their male peers to help people be comfortable with them as leaders.
  • They invest more time than their male peers in relational behavior, such as listening to others.
  • They take time to share some personal information and show an interest in the personal lives of others.
What has worked for you? I would love to hear your tips and stories to share with others.]]>

Masculine and Feminine Workplace Values

Yes, this is a story about a personal betrayal. But it is also a story about women’s friendship rules crashing into the norms of a “man’s world” where a friendship between two women is destroyed by behavior that is expected between men and rewarded by the organization. A lot has been written about the ways that most workplaces favor and reward masculine workplace values and discourage feminine workplace values, which are described in the table below.

Alice, who worked in an engineering environment, would have found herself right at home in a study conducted by Joyce Fletcher. Fletcher found that the relational practices (which include collaboration, teamwork, coaching, and empathy) preferred by the women engineers in her study were discouraged and undervalued by their organizations, even though the engineers produced good results. She observed that work environments in which engineering is highly valued are often characterized by autonomy, self-promotion, and individual heroics—where self-promotion is essential to being seen as competent.

Table 2. Comparison of masculine and feminine workplace values
Masculine workplace values Feminine workplace values
• Task focus • Community/team focus
• Isolation/autonomy • Connection
• Independence • Interdependence
• Competition—individualistic competitive achievement • Mutuality—achievement of success through collaboration
• Hierarchical authority • Collectivity/flat structure
• Rational engagement (focus on task, logic, and the bottom line—leave personal matters at the door) • Emotional engagement (notice body language and process, encourage relationships, share feelings and personal information, show empathy)
• Directive leadership style • Supportive leadership style
  Alice’s story, then, gives us an example of women’s friendship rules of unswerving loyalty, trustworthiness, and equality clashing with masculine workplace values of autonomy, self-promotion, and individual heroics. The masculine values get rewarded: Alice’s coworker got promoted. And let’s notice that Alice says that men compete for promotions through individual heroics all the time. They just go out for a beer and move on, but Alice and her coworker were never friends again.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

Is Something Missing in Your Life?

Teressa Moore Griffin and I have facilitated dozens of women’s leadership workshops. A few years ago, we began to notice something: the session had ended, but the workshop wasn’t over. The women who had participated had stayed after and were making plans to keep meeting. In fact, one group of women who attended this workshop ten years ago still meets twice a year, even though they live all over the United States. They host each other in their communities, do service projects together, and even help each other out in times of illness and crisis. And this group was not an anomaly, so Teressa and I began to ask ourselves, “What is going on? What’s driving this behavior?” Empowerment conferences for women are on the rise throughout the United States and internationally. Could it be that this surge is related to the pattern we observed at the end of our workshops? What need is being met by these conferences? Sure, women attend for the professional networking, but I think these conferences, and our workshop experiences, highlight something else. Women are missing community with other women. Consider these statistics:

Additionally, many women still find themselves having to fit into workplace cultures where only masculine norms of behavior are valued. This could mean that they may feel like outsiders at work and are hungry to be with others who share their experiences as women in the workplace. Barbara Berg, a historian and the author of Sexism in America, references the empowerment conferences when she says: These meetings give us the sense that we’re communicating and connecting at a time when I think so many of us have felt so isolated. I think these conferences have capitalized on a yearning to be part of something.   Getting Creative about Creating Community I remember when, because I was traveling a lot for work, I realized that I didn’t have enough “girlfriend” time in my life. I had a great relationship with a lovely man, but I really missed having time with women friends to talk and share and laugh with and to get that special kind of support you can only get from other women. My travel schedule meant that I could not be part of a regular group because I was rarely in town, so I had to get creative. Here’s what has worked for me:
  • I really wanted to have a diverse group of women friends, so an African-American friend and I (I am white) founded a black and white women’s support group. We are eight women who live all over the United States and meet twice a year in each other’s homes for a long weekend—and we cook and shop and laugh and have deep conversations late into the night. We have been meeting for more than 20 years, and, although we have had some changes in membership, we have been able to develop deep and caring relationships.
  • I am also part of a different support group with two other women. We live in different cities and we talk monthly on the phone for one hour to encourage each other in accomplishing our goals. We have been doing this for more than 20 years. Since we have been meeting, one of us completed a fine arts graduate degree and is a practicing photographer, the other completed a fine arts graduate degree and has written two novels, and I completed my doctorate and presented my research in my new book, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together. We set goals for what we will accomplish by our next call and we hold each other accountable. I would not have been able to accomplish the big goals in my life things without their support.
  • I also joined a women’s leadership collaborative that met for five years to learn about women’s dynamics in community. After the five years were over, many of the women continued meeting, but I left to work on my doctorate and write my book. I recently rejoined the group, which meets once a year for a week. I really missed being in this community and I am so glad to be back.
  • Additionally, one of my neighbors and I have been meeting at the gym and working out together with a trainer twice a week for more than 12 years—when I am in town. We do not see each other outside of the gym, but we look forward to catching up during our workouts and keeping track of the important moments in each other’s lives. And, of course, our workouts seem effortless because we enjoy each other’s company so much. I would really miss her if our shared workout time came to an end.
So, this is what works for me. How do you build community with other women? What has worked for you? I look forward to hearing from you.]]>

Friendship Rules for Adult Women

Table 1: Common friendship rules for adult women Show unswerving loyalty and trustworthiness. Give unconditional acceptance while seldom disapproving. Keep confidences. Share gossip and air problems. Be a good listener. Self-disclose. Practice equality. Don’t discuss friendship rules.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>

Competing with a Friend for a Promotion: Can This Relationship Survive?

Other scholars have describedthese expectationsas relational images that develop early in life and are carried from one relationship to another, sometimes changing with new experiences. We don’t show up in the workplace as a blank slate. We carry with us all of the things we have learned, including our friendship rules and expectations. Men have friendship rules too, but because of differences in our gender socialization, theirs are not the same as ours. Women I talk with often marvel at the way men can disagree or compete at work and then go out for a beer together as though nothing happened, while women do not get over similar experiences with other women for a long time—if ever. What friendship rules could be making it harder for women to compete with a woman friend for a new job or promotion? My research validated the work of other scholars who describe a core of very common friendship rules. Not everyone has the same rules, and there will be variations for cultural differences. Below are the most commonly reported friendship rules:

  • Maintain unswerving loyalty.
  • Demonstrate trustworthiness.
  • Keep confidences.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Share gossip and air problems.
  • Provide self-disclosure.
  • Practice equality and acceptance, and refrain from disapproval.
  • Avoid discussion of the friendship rules.
Could it be that it feels disloyal to compete with a woman friend for a job? Or could it be hard to face the possibility that you will no longer be equals after one of you gets the promotion? One thing is certain: if it is taboo to discuss friendship rules, our friendships will be at high risk for damage in competitive professional situations. Here are some tips for how you can both preserve relationships and compete with other women in the workplace. First, have a friendship-rules conversation. Include as many of these points as you can with your friend:
  1. Confirm that the friendship is important to you and you don’t want it to be damaged because you are both applying for the same job.
  2. Propose a friendship rule that you wish each other the best in pursuing the job.
  3. Suggest a friendship rule that whoever gets the job will have the full support of the other to be successful.
  4. Acknowledge to each other that applying for the position is not personal, it’s professional.
Men compete with each other for jobs all the time and usually don’t take it personally. We can do this, too, women, if we are intentional and supportive in our relationships with each other. Let us know what has worked for you in competitive situations with a friend.]]>

Practice Equality

New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/): The friendship rule of practicing equality can create confusion for women in the workplace in at least three different situations:

  • When we are reluctant to compete with each other for jobs
  • When we are reluctant to support each other because a colleague got promoted or has more education
  • When we are reluctant to do the self-promotion necessary to get ahead in most organizations
Pat Heim and Susan Murphy call this women’s relational expectation the Power Dead-Even Rule. That is, we value (and expect) staying at the same level and not getting ahead of each other. Lois explained why she does not mention that she has a master’s degree: I’m hesitant to say I have a master’s degree because it lowers the other person’s (woman’s) perception of you. She will think, “Who the hell do you think you are?” She will think you’re uppity, and she, and others, will be more reticent and not give you information and help. It’s important not to appear that you are tooting your own horn. My clients often talk about their reluctance to apply for a position in their companies when another woman also wants the position because they’re concerned about damaging an actual or potential relationship. My study also revealed a strong theme about discomfort with advancing ahead of friends or colleagues and fear or actual experiences of the relationships not surviving such advancements. Of course, part of the problem is that our expectations are unconscious and unspoken, making it impossible to put them on the table and negotiate them. But once again, the feminine workplace values of a flat structure and equality crash into the hierarchical workplace to set us up for disappointment or confusion about what to expect from other women at work. We cannot advance if we don’t toot our own horns and compete for promotions, yet this can create problems for our relationships with other women.]]>