Yesterday, I made what I originally thought was an egregious mistake – I fell to tears in front of my manager when he asked me how I was doing. And as soon as it began, the sob fest became unrelenting because with each response and explanation, new tears welled up despite my effort to control them.
Now mind you, I wasn’t sobbing uncontrollably – many of you may know what this kind of tearing up looks like. It’s a shaky, unconfident voice and welled up eyeballs, the kind of stuff that has no business in the workplace, and as soon as it starts, the embarrassment and timidity that follows feels horrifying. But here I was, crying, “like a little bitch,” as I so nicely described it later.
I work in the manufacturing world where tears and sensitivities equal weakness and we’re applauded for our strength, self-control, and overall obsession with facts and outcomes. This world leaves no place for crying and in an environment like this, demonstrating open vulnerability is scary.
And if you know me personally, you know I preach vulnerability as a cardinal leadership skill, but I in no way intend to practice that with my manager or superiors. (I’m nothing if not self-aware.) But there I was, crying.
I cried because the HR world right now is incredibly tough and sometimes that drive to succeed and meet goals is hit hard with the reality of the employment climate we’re in today.
And you know what? A few things happened because of that “weak moment,” that I did not expect.
For those of you out there who are trying desperately to keep it all together and be courageous daily, here are a few unplanned outcomes of my having fallen apart in front of manager:
1. My manager did not look me square in the eyes and call me a wimp or demean me in any way for my behavior. If anything, he demonstrated compassion and concern for my well-being.
He, in many ways, gave me permission to feel what I was feeling and made it clear that he understood the pressure I am under, both at work and at home, and that I needed to take care of myself. He reminded me, which I need a lot, that it’s unrealistic to expect perfection and things aren’t always going to go well at work. (By the way, this kindness made me cry more. UGH.)
2. He gave me the time I needed to work it out in front of him. When I get emotional, my rational brain goes on vacation and I get incredibly “black or white” in my thinking. Having this time to work through all that out loud allowed me to clear that disaster-focused thinking from my brain, so that I could better organize my thoughts later.
Here’s the thing though, I still felt rotten about it well after he left my office. Why? I felt exposed, like I’d shared a part of myself that was too childlike or sensitive. And you know what? I did.
Here’s what I learned in the 12 hours that followed:
1. Vulnerability is part of what makes us human. It’s easy to say, but it’s more difficult to do. To live through and rise out of falling to pieces is to be human, and it allows us to make connections.
When our coworkers, friends, and family see us in our own vulnerability, it allows them to see us for who we are, to empathize and connect in a real way, one that transcends the business bullshit that often gets in the way. It gives others the platform to be open too. As I took an afternoon walk, I realized that to lead, I had to get with the practicality of being totally vulnerable with others.
2. I had to learn to see that episode as an opportunity to grow, not to beat myself up mentally for “failing” or “making a big mistake” in the workplace.
My manager now knows me as human, and I must get okay with that. I cried. So what? Maybe that episode taught him something as much as it taught me something. Time to move on.
3. That crying spell also opened this door for me – when someone cries or falls to pieces in front of me, that’s my opportunity to pay it forward. I need to make sure I give them the same grace and compassion as a manager that I was so grateful to receive from mine.
I finished my evening walk with that in mind because that “weakness” I was so embarrassed about is in truth, courage, and strength in the face of challenging times and we’re all a little better for having experienced it. Even me.
About the Author
Dana Raby is a manufacturing manager, learning and development specialist, writer, copy editor, and professional skills coach. She resides in Fort Wayne, Indiana with her three daughters and General Furrington, the most honorable house cat.