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Filtering by Category: Work

The Case for Being Unprofessional at Work

Annmarie Rodriguez

A recent article published in Forbes asked the question, "Does Crying Kill Your Career?" This sparks an important conversation about the necessity for an authentic human experience in the workplace. Crying is viewed by many as unprofessional, regardless of gender. However, behaving professionally does not mean that we cease to be human. 

Stoicism has little value in the modern workplace as connection and a sense of safety allow employees to perform their best, most creative work. Sometimes emotions get the better of us, and it is far better to release by crying and seek help than to just suppress the feelings and keep pushing through.  

Many people become uncomfortable around tears due to fear. Managers are afraid to be sued by handling the situation incorrectly, or even just to cross that imaginary boundary where an employee or a colleague is seen fully as another person. That is one of the reasons why our managers solicit feedback from their teams every week, because the greatest weapon against fear and disconnection in the workplace is asking a question.

Part of asking the right questions is being prepared for the answers you might receive, and the emotions associated with the responses you may not likebut building trust requires transparency. Some see the expression of emotions as a weakness, while others  create safe environments where expressing emotions skillfully can begin a process of breakthroughs.

Disagreements at the workplace inevitably arise and sometimes emotions run high. For example if an employee works on a project for six months and the management team decides not to put it into action, that person can feel marginalized. It’s not uncommon for anger or tears to well-up as a result. Creating an environment that promotes honesty encourages that person to share their frustration. This ultimately fosters more connection between managers and employees, and can lead to more effective performance.

The skill-set necessary for resolving conflicts with finesse is exemplified in the work of the renowned psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman. Goleman’s framework of emotional intelligence at work is as important as the intellectual know-how that it takes to get each task done. Crying may be the most authentic response to a very real situation, and this kind of transparency is part of building the trust that is needed to resolve issues and collaborate effectively.

Self-Awareness: Taking a Step Back

At one of our leadership retreats, I had a disagreement with a manager on how to approach an issue. I was advocating for one possibility and he shot down my idea saying, “that’s not it,” but had no alternate solution to offer. We were both livid at first, but our outbursts were followed by a conversation where we discovered one another’s perspectives.  I was really attached to my idea and imagined that it was being bulldozed with nothing to replace it.

Taking a step back I realized that wasn’t the reality. When emotions come up, they can get the best of us and cloud our thinking. We get into trouble. We imagine that our reality is the truth, but it is just our perception. We treat our assessments and perspectives as underlying facts. When I cooled off and became more self-aware, I was able to approach the situation with more curiosity for my colleague’s point of view, and feel even more connected with him afterwards.

Empathy: Building a Bridge and Moving on

When multiple realities collide, take a minute to retrace your own thinking and make space for the other person to express their story and point of view, then the crucial conversations can really begin. When the other person feels unsafe to express opinions or dissent, they lock their creativity inside and relationships can be damaged irreparably.

In the Forbes article referenced above, Chery Connor offers an example of recommended HR guidelines: “when an employee cries the manager should offer tissues and listen, but should not touch the employee or offer reassurances, as the situation could have liability inferences such as sexual harassment claims.” I can certainly see the need for guidelines for how managers handle emotional situations at work. But whenever you put rules in place that limit natural behaviors, you are also limiting creativity and authentic human connection. If you want to prevent a car accident from happening, would the solution be to permanently shut down the highway?

Imposing limits to protect against a situation where someone gets emotional and considers suing you may seem like the safest route. But you are putting up a barrier to human interactions that lead to more connection, and higher performance. Shutting down the highway for the one accident that may occur limits all connection and productivity.

The goal is not to avoid these emotional situations. They inevitably happen, and can be accompanied by shame and discomfort because they are not commonly accepted in the workplace. Treating people with humanity and respect creates more understanding, connection, and trust. These can be profound opportunities for personal and interpersonal growth. When handled properly, you are more likely to facilitate long-term loyalty and engagement from employees.

Self-Regulation: Making Room for the Range of Emotions.

Emotions are a part of being human, and unexpressed emotions can lead to distress and take their toll on our health.  We all want to be healthy humans with a high quality of life, and expressing emotions actually lets the stress out of us. Conversely, shutting off an emotion or access to it because that’s deemed unprofessionalimpacts our overall ability to feel.

To be fully expressed and creative individuals with much to offer, we cannot limit the range of emotions that we are willing to feel.  If you want to experience the heights of joy, you have to be willing to experience the depths of pain. If you want people to experience passion, engagement, inspiration and enthusiasm (great performance) you can’t shut off fear, anger, frustration and pain. If you are looking to build a company of numbed out robots, go for it. But if you want people to operate at their peak, you have to make the opposite acceptable.

Managers have to be cognizant of when employees are overwhelmed by emotion as they may need additional support or some time off. They can also have a negative impact on morale and productivity company-wide. But overall people have to be encouraged to share openly with their managers in the right settings like in their 1-on-1 meetings.

The best-selling book Crucial Conversations, discusses how you can express yourself (no matter how offensively) and feel heard as long as there is safety. Learning to become proficient at creating a sense of safety will allow you to help people express how they really feel. Issues that would otherwise never see the light of day just fester, but when they are out in the open appropriate action can be taken. This ability to honestly and safely express oneself can also lead to personal breakthroughs. This can manifest in creativity, innovation, and doing great work.

Expectations: Be Careful What You Wish For.

When I expect someone to be a jerk,  they will probably show up that way in my presence. If I have a permanent story that someone is a jerk, that’s how I will filter every interaction with them. My task is to get to the root of my own story and my own part in creating situations.

Writer and psychologist Gay Hendricks’ believes that each side is 100% responsible for the outcome of a situation. Sometimes the difference between resolution and a continual gripe around the water cooler is surrendering to this concept that each side has a part and no one is a victim of circumstance.

Create new possibilities by shifting from labeling someone in your mind with preconceptions and assumptions to taking a completely different road and granting trust to the person. It’s the difference between this reaction, “he’s being  curt and looked frustrated. He doesn’t like me and is just not saying it”, and actually confronting the issue, “Remember that time that you responded curtly when I was mentioning my results on that project. It seemed that you were frustrated and angry and not sharing it. This is how I felt. Here is the story I made up. I may be wrong but I wanted to clear that with you because I want to have a good relationship and do great work.”

Moving through conflict as full-spectrum human beings requires us to look at our own selves with curiosity and come to the table with curiosity for our colleagues. The task then is to mind the gap between where we both are and where we can envision one another to be. This is a courageous task, because looking at the truth can mean that we have to come to terms with the lies that we tell ourselves.

When I look critically at myself, I may see that there is something preventing me from doing my best work. Then I question my perceptions. By questioning my own perspective, I may out my stories as not-quite-truth but something that I made up. Then, I can open up to other perspectives.

From this place, managers and employees or coworkers can come to common ground, working through the conflicts as they arise. We can bring our emotions to the table when there is trust, safety, curiosity and consideration of our colleagues, not as human resources but as human beings. And when we are on the same side of the table, we are united in our mission and can do our best work.

David Hassell is Founder & CEO of 15Five, web-based communication software that elevates the performance of managers, employees and entire organizations by initiating weekly conversations that quickly uncover achievements, challenges, and risks. Learn how David and his team are helping companies inspire greatness in their people at www.15five.com.

Play: Alternative Learning on the Job

Fay Johnson

By Emily Brooks

You may be comfortably established in your 9 to 5, with school a quickly fading memory, but the need to learn did not cease when you hung that diploma on your wall. Continual learning keeps you competitive and relevant at your job and provides you with the needed resources to make valuable contributions to your community. Many companies facilitate this continued development through training programs, corporate universities, and lunchtime seminars. However, they are also discovering that great learning happens through play. From gaining vital communication skills to increased creativity and team collaboration, companies are turning to play to build their workforce’s potential.  

Significant learning can be accomplished when “hiding really important lessons inside of fun,” said Michelle Honchariw, managing director of The Go Game, a company with a mission to help employees learn and grow through wildly fun, high-tech scavenger hunts in their cities. She is right. Research over the last several years has brought the power of play to the forefront of learning theory. Office environments and professional etiquette suppress the playful, personal way that we tend to build relationships outside of work. Infusing play into the workday, however, enhances our ability to learn about one another and ourselves, fostering the trust and collaboration that provide the basis for corporate thriving.

Companies can create opportunities for employees to explore and hone their abilities and relationships through shared laughter and recreation. These events should be incorporated wisely into work life. Rather than randomly schedule “fun” activities, “It’s important to do it when you feel there’s a need,” said Julie McDougal, senior human resources partner at IBM. Done right, creating space for play can be extremely effective: “That’s when innovation hits, that’s when conversations flow . . . and connections are made,” said Kevin Fraczek, manager of Intel’s corporate Great Place to Work program.


Relationships and, indeed, learning start with vulnerability. Without taking risks and sharing more deeply, you cannot achieve a greater level of connection and understanding. A relaxed, fun-centered environment facilitates such openness in a way that daily office life cannot. Take a cue from TeamBonding, a teambuilding company, whose Cirque de Team event provides participants an opportunity to enjoy themselves while challenging them to leap and swing outside of their comfort zone. Under the direction of professional performers, participants attempt to master a plethora of circus tricks from juggling to tightrope walking.

Activities like these tricks stretch your abilities, bringing you to a place of vulnerability and encouraging you to depend on others. “If you’re unfamiliar, you kind of need the help,” said TeamBonding COO David Goldstein. Don’t have the funds to hire circus performers to show you their stuff? Choose a skill to learn together from stand-up paddleboarding to orienteering.



Working as an effective team requires more than just learning to get along with John in the cube next door. Flexibility, coordination, and honesty: all are key. Activities that get people working together without the pressure of sales quotas or budgets help develop these skills. At F1 Boston, a kart racing facility, cross-departmental teams work together to run NASCAR racecars through full pit stops, mastering tactics that they can apply at the office to maximize productivity, morale, and teamwork. There’s a “lot of yelling, lot of screaming, lot of laughing,” said Glen Ransden, F1 Boston’s marketing director. “But there’s also a lot of learning,” he said. After the first round, teams evaluate their performance, identify personal strengths and weaknesses, and switch team members to positions where they will be most effective, practicing the analysis, strategy and flexibility crucial for productive collaboration. If you don’t happen to have a racecar on hand, you can still enjoy the collaborative benefits of some friendly competition. Get speedy in the kitchen instead for an office cook-off.



Work stalls, projects fall through the cracks, potential clients decide not to call back. The problem? Failed communication. Both workplace productivity and building relationships rely on effective exchange of ideas and thoughts. Casual, relationship-building conversations and persuasive communication skills alike blossom amid fun. During The Go Game’s scavenger hunts, for example, employees practice sensitive conversation and motivation while convincing a “Bawling Bride” to continue with her wedding. “Little do they realize at the time that this is sales training,” The Go Game’s Michelle Honchariw said. If you are short on time, these same principles can be put into practice in your office with some hilarious and stimulating improvisational theater games.



Old approaches cannot solve the new problems our rapidly changing world presents. We must arrive at fresh, creative answers quickly and effectively. In play, children constantly innovate, experiment, and craft imaginative solutions. From The Go Game’s haiku offs and compliment duels to navigating the uncharted waters of building seaworthy boats in less than three hours, opportunities abound within play to strengthen your innovation skills by responding rapidly to new situations and engaging in environments where they can converse freely. Don’t want to hire professionals? Create your own scavenger hunt full of hilarious challenges that require fast, out-of-the-box thinking.


Empathy leads to compassionate action, enables effective compromise and fosters deeper relationships. Your ability to extend empathy expands when you view others as fellow human beings with kids and bucket lists, struggles and sorrows, and perhaps even dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, this perspective is often lost in the corporate environment as coworkers are seen merely as accountants, marketing managers or CEOs. By “having fun and laughing together” at a Go Game team building event outside the office, Heather White and her team were exposed to a new side of each other, said White, operations support manager at Clorox. They began to see each other as friends rather than coworkers, she explained.

At Intel, employees get to know each other through a variety of activities: going out to the movies, cheering on their favorite sports team or training for annual company races together, said Intel’s Kevin Fraczek. Such bonding times cannot be neglected even when working remotely. The global IBM takes time to relax and get to know each other during video conferences, spending quality time face to face even when separated by miles and perhaps cultures, said IBM’s Julie McDougal. Whether via webcam or in person, take some time to learn who people are, what makes them tick, what you have in common, and what differences you admire.

Interview with GoldieBlox Founder

Fay Johnson

When Debbie Sterling was a child, her parents encouraged her to be an actor. Yet, when it came time to apply to college, her high school math teacher suggested Debbie consider engineering. “I thought an engineer was train driver,” she explained, but when she arrived at college she gave Engineering 101 a try. She loved it. Eleven years later, after graduating as one of the few female engineering majors in her class at Stanford, Debbie launched a toy company with the mission to get and keep young girls interested in engineering.

Debbie designed GoldieBlox, a toy/game/book combination that focuses on the character of Goldie, a sprightly, overalls-wearing girl with a tool belt and mismatched socks, who wants to be an engineer. Geared for 5-9-year-olds, the toy teaches spatial recognition skills via the toys and a companion storybook and game board.

Our Editor-in-Chief, Fay Johnson, had a chance to speak with Debbie at her office in Oakland about following her passion, why the world needs more female engineers, and how you can help.