By Alex Fradera
We’re supposed to be hungry for workplace feedback: after all, it can help us to eliminate blind spots in our self-knowledge, give us focus and surpass relationship issues. Often, though, it can be a bit hard to take. On the wrong day, when the feedback’s particularly upsetting, it may even bring us to tears. If this happens to you and you’re a man, according to new research in the Journal of Applied Psychology, it could spell bad news for your career prospects.
Daphna Motro and Aleksander Ellis from the University of Arizona recruited 169 adults based in the US, with an average age 32 and mostly in active employment, and presented them with one of several versions of a 6-minute video showing a performance evaluation of a grocery store manager named Pat: a scripted role performed by actors in their early twenties, a male one in some videos, a female one in others. Participants were asked to imagine they were the supervisor, and the video was staged so that they viewed the action over the shoulder of the supervisor with Pat right in front of them. The evaluation wasn’t good: Pat had recently been rude, frequently late, and oversaw declining sales. In some versions of the video, this feedback was too much, provoking male or female Pat to tears.
In post-viewing ratings of how typical the behaviour in the meeting was, participants who viewed the version featuring a tearful female Pat didn’t find her behaviour any more strange than participants who viewed the video showing female Pat remaining dry-eyed. But for participants who saw male Pat, tears were seen as significantly atypical, and they also tended to rate him lower for competence and fitness for leadership. Men and women alike made these harsher judgments of male criers.
Concrete consequences also followed. After the video screening, participants were told that Pat was moving away from the area and was after a short recommendation letter to help her/him find new work, which the participant should draft. As an employee, despite his/her recent poor performance, Pat wasn’t a complete disaster – participants had seen a positive resume at the start of the experiment – and many participants gave positive feedback, using phrases like “I have nothing but praise for him.” However, participants who watched the video depicting a crying male Pat wrote recommendation letters with the most negative tone, as evaluated by independent judges. The article offers one particularly harsh example:
“Well, I have to be honest, I’m not putting my name on the line for a slacker like Pat, I suggest that he get to the nearest McDonald’s and start working his way up from the bottom. Based on the reports I received I can’t in good conscience recommend that anywhere hire him. With that being said, good luck, if all else fails maybe he can get a gig flipping signs.”
Publicly crying is a signal of vulnerability: a state that we are less surprised to see in women, who are meant to be tender and emotional according to stereotypes. But when men cry, it violates cultural expectations that they should be firm and in control. The new experimental data suggest that, at least in simplified scenarios, this effects our evaluations of and actions toward crying men. Now it would be important to see if this holds true in real-world contexts between people with an active history, and explore it in samples outside of the US, to establish whether for men at work – as Motro and Ellis suggest – “crying is not an option”.