If your female coworkers have a tendency to disappear throughout the day, they may be secretly shedding tears behind closed doors, according to an ongoing UC Davis study.
Kimberly Elsbach, a professor in the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, has studied a group of more than a dozen women and has found that many of them have gone to great pains to hide their tears on the job.
Women may cry in a restroom, abruptly leave a meeting or take refuge in an office – a burden that men don’t have, said Elsbach in a UC Davis news release.
Elsbach, a specialist in organizational behavior, said her own experiences of crying at work inspired her to investigate the causes and consequences of adults’ tears. She said she found little research on the subject – particularly in a business setting – and decided to conduct a study of her own.
One of the things that intrigued me was how tears on the job might affect others’ perceptions of you and how it might affect your long-term career prospects, said Elsbach in a telephone interview.
While a wide range of emotions can cause tears, frustration and anger are the two primary causes for the ones shed in Elsbach’s study.
We don’t see a lot of crying for sadness [or] for happiness [at work], she said.
Elsbach, who is several months into her study, said she hopes to discover the consequences of crying on the job, particularly as it pertains to leadership. Managers are stereotypically strong and emotionally stable, she said.
People strongly perceive a link between the act of crying and the personality trait of emotional stability, she said. That can be very damaging if you’re trying to do a job [and] a real hindrance as to whether or not you’re able to move up.
There may be certain contexts in which crying is viewed as more acceptable, Elsbach said, such as Hillary Clinton’s televised tears just before Super Tuesday.
That was a setting and a situation in which somebody was trying to elicit… an emotional response, so it’s seen as more appropriate. Hillary has a lot of credit because she is seen as being the opposite way, she said.
But Dean Keith Simonton, a UC Davis psychology professor and leadership expert, said tears rarely have any value for either male or female leaders.
Tears undermine the masculinity always expected of our male leaders, and undermine the femininity often suspected in our female leaders, said Simonton in an e-mail interview.
Whether Clinton’s tears helped or hurt her is still a matter of debate, Simonton added.
[Her tears] had costs as well as benefits, and the jury is still out about whether it was a net gain or loss, he said. My inclination is to say that it could hurt her if she turns out to be the Democratic nominee because the Republican candidate is going to look extremely strong – Presidential – in comparison. But this is just speculation at this point.
The perception that women are too emotional while men do not cry is merely a product of cultural indoctrination, not an intrinsic truth, said UC Davis Women’s Resource and Research Center assistant director Adrienne Wonhof.
The choice for both women and men then becomes whether to be authentic human beings who deserve to own and appropriately express emotions as they come, or to assimilate to our cultural expectations about our gender, Wonhof said.
Wonhof said that by appreciating the complexity of emotions, perceptions about tears on the job can change. People can thus decide that tears are sometimes or especially appropriate even in the workplace, she said.
We may then have work environments that appreciate people being their fully authentic selves, she said.
In the meantime, Elsbach continues to expand the scope of her study by interviewing more women – she said she now has data from 50 – and begin interviewing men.
Our goal is to understand what the consequences of crying are and why they have the effects they do, she said.
PATRICK McCARTNEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.