In the eight years I have been editor at a Christian magazine, I have cried while on the job three times. I don’t mean misting up over a rude email or missed deadline—that happens on a semi-regular basis. I mean the kind of crying when hot tears stream down your face as you gasp for breath, and you wish your mom was there to tell you everything is okay. In those blessedly rare moments, I have walked out of the building, gotten in my car, and let it rip.
My trips to the car suggest this: There is shame surrounding emotions in the workplace. We have absorbed the belief that emotions cloud rational thought and good judgment, that they are a liability especially for leaders. High-powered women speak of having to “turn off their emotions,” and their femininity more generally, in order to gain respect in male-dominated environments. As Martha Stewart told a contestant on The Apprentice, “Women in business don’t cry, my dear.”
So it was a revelation when Sheryl Sandberg noted in her bestselling book, Lean In, that she has cried openly at the offices of Facebook, and probably will do so again. “It has happened to me more than once,” she wrote. “It happens to other women. Rather than spend all this time beating ourselves up for it, let’s accept ourselves.”
There’s truth here for women who have been placed in positions of workplace influence: God created us with emotions, and they are good. We know they are good because Scripture portrays a God who feels.
He is described as being grieved (Ps. 78:40), angry, (Deut. 1:37), and moved by pity (Judges 2:18). God is eternal and unchanging, yet in a paradox of the Christian faith, He appears to be affected by his people. And Jesus Christ weeps at the death of His friend Lazarus (John 11:35), and is overwhelmed with sorrow, even to death, in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:38).
These passages tell us that the God of the universe is not too lofty or strong for emotions; in fact, in Christ, what appears to be weakness is actually strength. That can be true for us as well, at the workplace as well as in every other sphere of life. When we cry, we are vulnerable—but who said that vulnerability is necessarily bad?
Vulnerability is key to an authentic life, lived before God and others. As leaders when we are vulnerable, it allows the people we lead to see that we, too, are fallible. We give others permission to be imperfect yet still valued and respected. We allow ourselves to be corrected.
And when we are moved to tears, we should pay attention, for oftentimes our tears are trying to tell us something important. When we feel grief, we might be detecting an injustice, in our organization or in the broader culture. When we feel anger, we might perceive that our organization needs reform. When we are overjoyed, it might be that we are in our vocational “sweet spot,” and are doing exactly what God wants us to do. In all situations, our emotions can be central to—not a distraction from—living and leading with purpose.
Naturally there will be times when we need to control our emotions in order to be effective. “Weepiness” is generally not a sought-after quality in leaders. If women find themselves crying at work over non-work-related matters, they might need to take some time off to cope. That’s okay! It is better to acknowledge our emotions and respond to them appropriately than to “stuff” them to maintain an appearance of control. Anyone who has watched a leader or supervisor blow up over a relatively small matter will recognize this. Our emotions are powerful, whether we want to acknowledge them or not.
Jesus knew first-hand the power of emotions. When He arrived in Bethany to visit Mary upon the death of her brother Lazarus, He found her and other Jews weeping. The Gospel of John says that Jesus “was greatly moved in His spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:33). After the crowd invited Jesus to see Lazarus’s body, we hear: “Jesus wept” (v. 35). Apparently He didn’t hide or try and conceal his tears; He wept openly in front of his friends and followers, the people who looked up to him. Jesus doesn’t run from human emotions but dignifies them.
As we follow Him in our respective places of influence, may we do the same. May we be fully human in our workplace as in every other sphere of life, letting others see that vulnerability is not a distraction from, but crucial to, a life of effective kingdom work.