Time and time again, people are told to hide their emotions in the workplace -- to never cry, but rather, to appear strong and to separate work and personal life.
In the right context, research seems to agree. While it's acceptable to express frustration, anger, sadness, and disappointment, shedding the tears -- especially in male-dominated spaces -- is seen as weak and an intrusion on the business of work.
Some, however, believe this mindset of disregarding our full array of feelings in the workplace is difficult to detach from our normal thoughts and actions and, thus, restricts our ability to maximize our human potential.
One contrarian in line with this thinking is Chuck Runyon, CEO and co-founder of international mega-fitness chain Anytime Fitness, the fastest-growing gym in the world, with 4,000 locations serving three million members.
A culture of emotional expression, the Anytime Fitness way
Runyon is a rare breed of CEO who has made it his mission to cultivate a culture to encourage positive emotional expression, one in which employees can be human, beginning with his embracing of--wait for it--crying in the workplace.
This idea was so intriguing to me, I interviewed Runyon for a book I'm writing about how the best human leaders lead people to achieve great results through "actionable love." (Coincidentally, Runyon and co-founder Dave Mortensen have published Love Work, a blueprint for building a high-performance culture.)
What does crying have to do with it? Turns out, the basis for crying at Anytime Fitness has both a human and business case for it. Here's what Runyon told me:
[You have to] be willing to show emotions and vulnerability. My business partner -- Dave Mortensen, the co-founder of Anytime Fitness -- is a big, strong guy, but he's not afraid to cry in front of the staff, especially when he's moved by an act of kindness or the demonstration of courage. Nobody should be afraid to cry at the office -- especially tears of joy or appreciation. And crying isn't a sign of weakness; it's proof that you have a big heart and that you care about others. When we recognize and celebrate an employee's efforts to go "beyond the call of duty" in helping others, it begets similar efforts. It's important for employees to know that people care about -- truly love -- one another at their workplace. It makes them feel like they are part of a team and gives them a sense of purpose in their work.
That begs the question, what if more companies followed in the courageous way of Anytime Fitness and encouraged more--not less--emotional expression, even crying? Could it lead to greater passion from employees and ultimately lead to greater employee happiness and company success?
To even entertain the possibilities, note that Runyon proves the point that culture -- its values, shared behaviors, expectations for belonging, and its tribal social agreements -- is what will protect the unfettered release of emotional expressions, such as crying.
When it's OK or not OK to cry at work
We must differentiate between the type of crying Runyon speaks of versus another type of crying that should have no place at work:
1. It's not OK to cry: the type of crying coming from one's inability to self-manage or control the behaviors their emotions trigger. This is a disruptive, unstable kind of emotional release that is brought to work and holds others hostage; its usually rooted in trauma stemming from an unresolved life event such as divorce or death in the family. It's not only disruptive to one's thought process, decision making, and work performance; it's also disruptive to productivity and co-workers in close proximity, many of whom inadvertently have to play the role of therapist. Employees unable to self-manage are a detriment to a healthy, high-performing culture. Their best recovery from personal crisis must happen outside of work with proper self-care and time off before contributing to the workplace at full strength.
2. It's OK to cry: Notice the descriptors in Runyon's quote to illustrate when it's appropriate to cry in the workplace: when "moved by an act of kindness" or someone's courage; when expressing joy or appreciation; and when celebrating another's person's success. It happens when we're overcome with emotion because of pride, empathy, or a bond we feel when we scale the mountain, overcome all odds, and complete a gargantuan task or project together. These are innate, caring, human responses to observing and experiencing good things that happen for people in the workplace; it has tremendous value in a culture that expects and encourages such behaviors because it brings people closer together. And when teams become closer in community, they collaborate and perform better.
Allowing employees to be human
Runyon says he fosters a culture where employees can be human and not feel bad for it. He believes one of the most important things to do as a leader is to make sure every single person in the company feels and understands their significance.
We may be a long way from modeling the Anytime Fitness way. But after this interview with Runyon, I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful that when we finally learn to shift our perspective and make it safe for others to bring their whole selves to work--crying, laughing, singing, dancing, and all--we begin the process of demolishing the strongholds of fear and disrespect and incivility, and unleash the full human potential of people to perform at their best. Because in the end, that's what it's about.