I cried at work last week. Not the “close your office door to release the tears of being overwhelmed” kind of cry… though those can be cathartic. Not the “I just found out something sad” cry. My tears were shed with my peers who, at this point, are other vice presidents and the president of my institution. In my career, the cries that I’ve experienced in front of someone who is, organizationally, at the same level or higher than me have been caused by the same reason. It’s injustice. Let me say that I don’t use the word “injustice” lightly. The reasons and the details in the moments I have shed tears are not the same but when I see what I perceive as unjust action at my workplace, my eyes and my cheeks get wet.
I would not classify myself as a crier. I worked at my last institution for almost 14 years and cried in front of my boss in that job twice. Once, I was upset a group of us were discussing an employee with some critique when I knew she had the evolving, unbearable reality of a child who was losing a battle with a terminal illness. Where is the justice, I thought, in critiquing a person job’s performance when she was living life’s worse nightmare?
That was my own concept of justice. A justice that involved empathy, understanding, and giving a person – no matter what we think of the person — a break now and then. I’d say there could be some strong elements of feminist leadership in this instance. And, given my commitment to live life as a Christian, I’d say there are elements of that in there too.
When this cry took place those many years ago, I could not recover. You know those moments, the kind when you try your best to get your act together. Granted, I prefer the unrecoverable moment of being 10 years old, in my pleated Catholic school skirt and hearing my friend’s leg rub against the pew during Friday morning mass and thinking it was a fart. But, these days the unrecoverable moments look very different. In that tearful moment I described at my last job, I had to leave my supervisor’s office and stand in a bathroom stall for a few minutes. I had to give myself time to regain composure, I guess. I was embarrassed back then and couldn’t believe I had gotten so rattled. In the end, though, it turned out to actually be a helpful moment. A person who reported to me was in that room and she and I had been having some ups and downs. I think this moment made me seem much more than a supervisor to her, more human. “Human” as a good thing.
The cry I had this last week led me again to a bathroom stall. This time, things were very different. I have only been in my new job for 10 months. My colleagues did not seem like they were particularly sure what to make of my tears. I’m certainly not embarrassed, which I believe is a growing maturity and acceptance of being vulnerable (thank you, Brene Brown). But, I don’t know what I expect of these tears. After I regained composure and I commented to another senior team member about my tears, he noted that we are all “human” as a way to be supportive. To me, this encouragement (ironically) is often associated with weaknesses so I’m questioning its validity. To err is “human.” When we botch something up, we say we’re “human.” I don’t think that my tears were necessarily wrong. They were real. And utterly authentic. Real and authentic – two things that I try to be both as a leader and as a human.
My perception of crying on the job has evolved. I still don’t think we should be weepy and I really hope not to do it again in the near future. Yet, I think we have to be our most authentic and holistic selves in the workplace if we are going to be strong leaders. And, I don’t view my tears as a sign of being feminine but I do view them as an element of a feminist leadership. My emotions were reactionary to feeling like not all individuals were valued where I work. And, it’s not just about people being valued equally – it’s about being in a leadership position and realizing that there are pockets in all of our organizations where people are not feeling valued. I bear responsibility now more than ever for these pockets. I feel the weight of this responsibility and I feel it is shared, especially with my supervisor. I’ll say that I don’t think I would have let the tears flow if I did not feel accepted already among these peers. I am quite confident that my relationships with the others will be strong and continue to get stronger. And, not because of the tears. But because my tears were the result of my most authentic self – the person I am trying to be every day.