Leadership and Tears

Two examples of tears at work

Working with the leadership teams of two different companies, I experienced a stunning contrast of tears flowing at work. Both companies, employing several thousand employees each, are growing with impressive pace. Both leadership teams consist of leading experts in their industries, bright and best educated professionals, dealing with tremendous pressure and the pains of fast growth.

When working with the leadership team of company A, I experienced tears of despair, frustration and anger in one on one sessions. Working with them as a team, they kept calling harmony what I believed to be fear of conflict. They claimed to be open and honest with each other while I knew they were not. The leader did not build trust with his team members and was not responsive to their articulated needs. The team members avoided any conflict and didn’t stand up for what they thought was right and necessary. They clearly showed dysfunctions of a team, frustrating all of its members. The bitter tears I have experienced were a mark of suffering and distress.

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.” – Washington Irving

Working with leaders of company B, just one day later, I experienced another type of tears. These were tears of affection, gratitude and empathy. In a session with a board member and one of his direct reports, the board member spoke about his expectations and hopes for future collaboration. His speech was careful but clear, appreciative and authentic. I could sense the trust, respect and benevolence among the two of them. And I could see the tears in the eyes of the direct report. When I asked, what it felt like to hear such words of appreciation, he wiped away his tears and said: “This felt so much better than any promotion or salary increase I have ever received.” These were the warm tears of gratitude and bliss.

The rationale behind these examples

What made the difference in these so contrary situations? It was trust and vulnerability. Vulnerability-based trust emerges when people have the courage to admit the truth about themselves. Patrick Lencioni wonderfully describes this in his book “The five dysfunctions of a team”.

These five dysfunctions start with the fear of being vulnerable which keeps trust from emerging within teams. The absence of trust leads to preserving artificial harmony, impeding constructive conflict. Fear of conflict hinders clarity to arise and keeps team members from making decisions they fully buy-in to. This lack of commitment and the avoidance of interpersonal discomfort keeps team members from holding each other accountable for their actions. Avoiding accountability finally leads to an ongoing pursuit of individual goals and personal status, wearing down attention on collective success and results.

“For a team to establish real trust, team members, beginning with the leader, must be willing to take risks without a guarantee of success. They will have to be vulnerable without knowing whether that vulnerability will be respected and reciprocated.” – Patrick Lencioni

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, describe how they supported Uber to rebuild trust after the company’s series of self-inflicted scandals in 2017. The authors consider trust to be the essential leadership capital when defining leadership as “empowering other people as a result of your presence, and about making sure that the impact of your leadership continues into your absence”. The core drivers of such trust are authenticity, logic, and empathy. People tend to trust you when they experience you as real and authentic, when they believe in your judgement and logical competence and when they feel that you are empathetic and care about them. Each of these components are key in generating such trust. Being able to show strong emotions with tears and dealing appropriately with the tears of others, strongly builds trust along these dimensions of authenticity and empathy.

Some empirical evidence

Empirical findings based on a sample size of two might not be very meaningful. But there are reliable statistics on the business effects of trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer 2019 showed that authentic leaders lead more effectively, creating better and healthier team cultures. Teams that trust their leaders generate higher scores in loyalty (+38%), engagement (+33%) and commitment (+31%). And companies with high trust scores have higher stock prices compared to their peers with lower trust scores (+5% on average).

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report 2017 just 15% of employees globally (10% in Western Europe) are engaged at work, while 85% are not being engaged or are actively being disengaged in their jobs. But when leaders manage to meet their employee’s basic human needs for psychological engagement, such as positive workplace relationships and frequent recognition, employee engagement evolves and individual and team performances boost. Business units in the top quartile of engagement are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile. And highly engaged organizations show more than four times stronger growth in earnings per share compared to their competitors.

By coincidence company B shows a much lower churn rate in its leadership team and a much higher evaluation compared to company A.

Back to tears

There are different types of tears. Reflex tears result from irritations of the eye. Basal tears keep our corneas wet. It’s psychic or emotional tears that display strong positive and negative feelings. According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, woman cry emotional tears 30 to 64, men 6 to 17 times a year in average.

These tears move most people around us. But it doesn’t mean the person crying is having a breakdown. It is just the way our bodies react to strong emotions. This is what makes us human. If something is really important to us and we are really emotional about it, we naturally shed tears. How could showing such true feelings, engagement and commitment be wrong?


Most leaders I met don’t feel comfortable with tears though, neither their own nor those of others. If you are a leader and one of your team members is shedding tears, show compassion and understanding, stay calm and in charge, don’t overreact, give the crying one time and space and acknowledge that tears are a natural way of showing strong emotions. If you have been crying at work yourself in the past, modestly share the experience, showing your own vulnerability as a leader, creating safe space and building trust. If you as a leader can’t or don’t want to stop your own tears, own them. The less uncomfortable you feel about your tears the easier it will be for others to deal with them. If you can, speak about your emotions, make others understand what makes you cry. If you feel too uncomfortable, leave the room. When you come back, be open, explain and just be authentic.

As a leader in my past I have shed my tears at work, and I have experienced many others doing so. Looking back I do not regret a single teardrop of mine. I deeply regret every tear I caused by putting an excess of pressure on people. And I still feel the warm gratitude and bliss when tears have been shed for empathy and compassion.

“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” – Hans Christian Andersen


About the author
Jan Kiel supports leaders and their teams in successfully mastering critical and strategic challenges and increasing their performance. Over more than 20 years as CEO, CFO, turn-around-manager, strategy consultant, and investor, Jan had his own challenges, successes and failures. Today he shares his experiences and capabilities with his clients, trusting in their ability to master their challenges themselves.

The purpose in life is to develop a strong character.


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Des O’Connell (CSA Accredited Coaching Supervisor and Faculty Member of Meyler Campbell) ist my great supervisor.