The “boys don’t cry” problem of work

Boys don't cry

You may be familiar with the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, which is essentially the Brandon Teena story. This post won’t necessarily be about that version of Boys Don’t Cry, although I enjoyed the title (and the film!) so I swiped it here.

Rather, this is about how that central tenet — boys do not cry — influences a lot of what happens in first-world, white-collar work. Let’s set the stage here.

Item 1: Work is still (largely) a “man’s world”

This is changing, which is good. (If you were to list the most important inventions of the past 100 years, I think “the pill” would be Top 3, right?) But I don’t think it’s changing very fast. There are still more male CEOs with one name — John — than women CEOs in total. I can bring up the 2016 U.S. Presidential election here, but I don’t really want to. In short, unfortunately: patriarchy won. It still very much has a place. So you can stop reading now and think I’m anti-female or something. I am most assuredly not — much closer with females than males, actually — and let’s try to address that in the next section.

Boys don’t cry … except when discussing their fathers

I’m reading a book right now called The New Male Sexuality. If you’re wondering why I’m reading that, well, I think sex is an interesting topic that we often under-discuss, so why not try to learn something here and there? Isn’t that what real human growth is supposed to look like? I’ve only read maybe one chapter of this book so far. But in it, the author (this guy) has a great little sequence. He says that if you want any grown man to cry, find him a safe space and allow him to discuss his father. I’ve read a lot of books in my life, and I don’t know if there has ever been a truer sentence than that. I’m fairly certain you could get Trump, Hitler, or the biggest world-building hedge-fund guy ever to fit neatly into that box — and I generally ain’t no fan of boxes.

So what does that all mean?

The prevailing theory here is this:

  • For most men, their strongest, most intimate early relationship is with their mom
  • They get ripped from that relationship due to societal expectations of males
  • However, they don’t usually find a corresponding relationship with their father
  • Now we’ve set women on the “girl track” and guys on the “boy track”
  • Even if you think gender is malleable — clearly is — it’s hard to argue these “tracks” exist, and it’s hard to argue they don’t mean a lot to how we get shaped in formative years (trucks vs. dolls, how we pick friends, etc.)

Right now we’re talking about concepts and paradigms that happen from about age zero to adolescence. Let’s fast-forward it to these guys becoming managers and leaders.


The boys don’t cry approach to work

I think you absolutely need to start here: for many people, the actual work itself isn’t what’s important. You can tell this by guys flipping industries once they become titans. It doesn’t so much matter if your widget is oil, books, or consumer packaged goods. What really matters is that you’re (a) seen as relevant and (b) not seen as incompetent. In the process, you must — absolutely must — be seen as an achiever. Our definitions of success tend to be very quantitative in nature (“six-figure salary” and/or “million-dollar home”), which ultimately is underscored by many work cultures that only focus on “hitting the number.”

You need to reconcile “how a lot of guys grow up” (above) with “this type of work culture.” As University of Chicago economists have pointed out, becoming this type of high-achieving world-builder is the closest thing many men end up having to fun.

Here’s a quick story. I had a job once where the CEO was one of these guys. There were maybe 300 employees. I did not have much access to the CEO, no. But when you did, a funny thing always happened. You could be joking around with him, and it would be light-hearted and great. Then you say one thing tangentially related to the business, OK? The dude fucking snaps. “What did you say?” It’s 0 to 75 in three seconds. Building a business is sacrosanct to these guys. They might be married and have kids, and they might love everything in that context. (Ideally they do.) But this business, this thing they crafted, that’s a real relationship. That’s the boys don’t cry void.

What else happens when boys don’t cry?

You likely have less empathetic leaders. Bad. Empathy has been tied to increased profits. A compassionate work culture also leads to revenue increases, and guys in this mold tend to not run compassionate joints. If anything, it’s asshole after asshole getting promoted. We’ve all worked in these places.

So, is it a big jump for me to say “my dad never hugged me” means I run a KPI-driven hellhole as an adult male? Yes, it’s a stretch. And it doesn’t work in every situation. (Nothing does.) But if you’d like a contemporary global example, look at the relationship between Trump and his father.

We are shaped by our past. You can change it and better yourself, of course — but to think who your parents were and how they acted doesn’t matter is folly. When boys don’t cry, oftentimes boys become miserable disasters who lead companies down the wrong path. Is this the psychology of our leadership crisis? It might be one explanation.

What else might you say about this boys don’t cry concept?

Ted Bauer


  1. An interesting concept to be sure and I think there are other areas to explore when trying to peg what makes a good manager/leader. Something I have noticed in my 30 years or so of nose to the grindstone is the worst managers had either no experience or the wrong experience with teams in their childhood. I know the “team concept” is fodder for debate at the corporate level and I’m not talking about sitting around a conference room table brainstorming. What I mean is leaders who were either not involved in any team sports or other team forums as a kid, OR were allowed to be the prima donna on a team generally suck at being managers. They seem to have never gotten the concept that a team/organization functions much better when you realize others have a distinct role to play based on the fact they are simply better or more suited to do it. Recognition of this fact enables leaders to focus on their own strong suits while enabling others to perform at optimal levels that align with their skill set. Tyrannical leaders/managers have control issues and trust issues. They stink at their job and make everyone miserable because they never learned through experience that you cannot be the pitcher, catcher, and all the infielders/outfielders yourself.

    • Many people can’t make the leap from “this is how I was as an employee” to “this is how I lead others,” unfortunately.

  2. I generally like your blog posts and identify with many of the concepts you address. But in this one, your true, abject Leftist colors are showing. I am so sick of hearing about the patriarchy. There are a lot of men who are dicks, but women are no angels themselves. If anything is more true, it’s that the feminization of the workplace has made it more stressfull, tense, and illogical.
    Let’s stop giving this invalid notion, patriarchy, any more attention and keep Western Civilization intact.

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