Professionalism, crying, and charitable reading

There are a few things I hold to be truths about professional discourse and behavior. I acknowledge openly that these truths are shaped by my understanding of my current work environment, my upbringing by people who were social chameleons and taught me to adapt to my surroundings, and my personal feelings about behavior and social norms.  Everyone will come to a different place on this question, and each destination will be deeply personal.

But it’s not personal.  It’s professional.  Just as I think that Sarah Palin disgraced the vice presidential debate by giving a “shout out” to grade-schoolers rather than offering substantive responses to questions of national importance, I think that there are certain behaviors that are unexpected and ill-placed at work.  And that’s not personal; on an emotional level, I bet those kids thought it was cool that the governor addressed them on national tv, but on a professional level, Palin failed to impress me.

So what is it that I’m getting at, here?  Colleen Harris’s post There’s No Crying In Librarianship — Or Any Other Career.  I bookmarked it with Delicious, and my FriendFeed picked it up, and conversation ensued, as it did on her FriendFeed when it posted there.  And over the course of those comments I tried to explain my support for her ideas, and I’m not sure I succeeded in the limited space available.  So this is attempt number 2, 3, 4, 27, wherever I’m at now.

I believe that there are norms that apply to office culture just as there are norms that apply to family culture, social culture, and all the other micro-cultures we’re each a part of.  And in professional culture, there are things that aren’t acceptable.  From my perspective, high levels of emotion are part of what’s outside ‘normal’.  You don’t yell.  You don’t swear.  You don’t call people names.  You don’t throw things.  You don’t become physically engaged.  You don’t cry.  When any of those actions occurs in the workplace, it indicates that the person has lost control of their emotions.  And that’s not part of what I consider appropriate workplace behavior.  Sometimes, in high-stress situations in which personal circumstance and professional circumstance collide, it’s unavoidable.  Who among us hasn’t had that colossally bad day in which every damn thing went wrong, and your emotions are a millimeter below the surface?  I have sympathy for those epic bad days.  They happen.  We lose it, we cope, and we move on, often with support from our friends, colleagues, and managers.

But as I said several times, in several venues, I think that if something which is within normal institutional operations (like an annual performance review containing both praise and criticism, or a single-instance problem that needs correction and resolution, or a run-of-the-mill conversation) has an employee so upset that they’re breaking those emotional norms, then there’s an extraordinary circumstance at play that needs to be addressed separately. And, just as I would want to send someone who was throwing things to anger management training or a counselor, I would want to find out why small conversations spark tears, and address the underlying issue.  Because in my experience, that’s what good managers do — they support their staff and give them the resources they need to be and do better in support of the institutional goals.

But that doesn’t make crying at work normal, or appropriate.

Strong emotional responses are damaging to professional relationships, and sometimes manipulative.  If a staff member has an outburst that includes yelling and swearing, it creates a reaction in the target — in our culture, these are usually anger, defensiveness, fear, or frustration — and if a staff member has an outburst that includes crying, it also creates a reaction in the target — again, culturally, often sorrow, regret, frustration, or defensiveness.  Those reactions, if triggered over and over by staff interactions, can not only change the way that two individuals interact with each other, but also can change the way that they perceive each other, communicate with each other, and refer to each other.  It’s a two way street; emotional outbursts from management are just as damaging (if not more, due to power dynamics) as when they come from staff.  When they happen repeatedly, when both parties know this behavior is not the norm and is not within the bounds of acceptability, that could mean a few different things:  The outbursts are intentional, designed to elicit the response they are receiving.  That’s manipulative.  Or, the outbursts are a personality trait that the individual is not capable of controlling.  If the outburst was swearing and throwing things, we’d expect the person to change… to control the emotion.  Why would we not ask the same for crying?

I was also dismayed in the discussion threads that popped up to see how many people insisted that because they cry easily, this was an unfair assessment.  Who implied that it’s the manager’s fault if the employee’s crying.  Who declared or implied that saying crying is wrong is unsympathetic and makes you a bad manager.

Here it is, in bold, plain English:  I reserve the right to judge everyone I meet.  We all have that right — it’s what people do.  It’s how they form their worldviews, because it’s a key part of human socialization.  And as managers, librarians not only have the right to judge the capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses of staff, they also have the responsibility to do so.  Librarians in positions of authority must know who can handle which pressures, who can adapt to which challenges, who needs encouragement, who needs nurturing, who needs guidance, who needs discipline, who can be pushed to go farther, who needs to be left alone to do their own thing.  That’s what the job entails.   And when an employee, outside of remarkable circumstances, responds to workplace interactions with tears, that’s a piece of information the manager must use in their judgment of who that staff member is, just as that manager would use the fact that a person tends to lose her temper and say indiscriminate things, or exhibits extreme grace under pressure, or is intimidated by authority figures, or is highly motivated to succeed at any task, or has trouble speaking in public.  If it’s a part of the person you present yourself to be, it’s part of the data set your manager will use to define you as an employee as they work to ensure the best fit for you in the work environment.

That’s not unfair.  That’s reality.

I’m sorry, truly sorry, that so many of my colleagues in libraries seem to have had such bad managers.  There’s a lot of implicit and explicit resentment about management styles in the conversations I saw going on yesterday, and it made me sad to see it. I wish that more people  had the experiences I’ve had; I’ve had the luxury of having supportive, forthright, and fair leadership over my career.  I’ve had the opportunity to learn from their successes and failures.  I know not everyone had that same set of experiences, and that removing that personal sting of bad managers from the conversation is hard to do when you feel it so keenly.

What I wish, when I get wistful about this subject, is that more people could say “my last manager was an idiot, and never treated me fairly” and not, then, extrapolate outward to say that All Managers Are Idiots And Treat People Unfairly And I Assume You Are Doing It, Too.  My sincere plea is this:  please, try to see both sides.  You know lots of managers in your professional network.  You like a bunch of them.  Maybe they’re not always the problem?

Maybe, the next time a post like Colleen’s percolates through the web, we might all read a bit more charitably as a result.  Maybe.


  1. While I don’t personally agree with all that you said, I agree with some of it and you’ve certainly given me food for thought. You are correct, of course, that neither managers nor employees are “always the problem.” Life is much more complicated than that and each work situation and relationship is unique. Thanks for this articulate, well-reasoned, even-handed post.


  2. I actually fully agree with what you are saying. As a student supervisor at an academic library, I frequently have to step in when a student is in over their head on one interaction or another. Being frustrated or upset to the point of tears to me, as a supervisor, no different from being so angry that they cannot speak, or so overwhelmed that they cannot do anything at all.

    Personally, I would never want to put a person, my employee or otherwise, in a situation that would cause tears, and not only because the employee would be upset. It is an issue of professional appearance and demeanor, and I do not thing that I am being mean or cold-hearted in saying this.


  3. Elegantly written, and well-thought out. You captured the nuances far better than my own (likely overwrought itself!) post, and I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment.


  4. Once again you’ve taken a potentially divisive issue and put a gentler and more human spin on it; thank you for that.

    Essentially I agree with you, but Melanie brings up two important exceptions and/or clarifications: first, I would really hesitate to criticize a colleague who broke down because of an extraordinarily difficult exchange at a service point. To me, that falls under the “colossally bad day in which every damn thing went wrong” clause above, and is the result of external forces, not internal-to-the-workplace issues.

    And second, I think the rules are slightly different for student workers, especially the 18-22-year-old set. That’s not to say that they have permission to burst into tears when offered constructive criticism, but rather that they’re still learning about how this whole “work” thing works. And most especially, they shouldn’t be in service interactions that could lead to tears – so Melanie is right to step in when they’re over their heads. Whenever I’ve worked with student employees, I’ve always told them never to hesitate to bump a difficult patron up to me or another full-time staff person, because they’re not paid enough to deal with that stuff. (I’m not, either, but at least I’m paid more than they are!)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s