Faking and suppressing one’s emotions during interactions with coworkers is associated with emotional exhaustion at work, according to new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. But those who activity try to change how they feel internally tend to be less drained and experience a variety of other benefits.
The findings provide new insights into the relationship between emotion regulation strategies and psychological outcomes in work environments.
“I’ve been working on research related to emotional labor since 2004 when I was an undergraduate student at Penn State. So, I’ve been fascinated by how employees experience — and regulate — their emotions at work for a long time,” explained study author Allison S. Gabriel (@ProfASGabriel), an associate professor and Robbins Fellow in the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona.
“Prior to this paper, I was mostly focused on how people regulate their emotions with customers in service contexts, as service employees have pretty clear ‘service with a smile’ display rules. But, I suspected that employees may also decide to regulate their emotions with coworkers for a variety of reasons, and I wanted to dive into that as much as possible.”
“Turns out I was right! Whether it’s for prosocial or impression management reasons, people decide how to regulate their emotions with their coworkers, and these choices can carry profound effects for their well-being and how they are then treated,” said Gabriel, who is also an associate editor at Journal of Applied Psychology.
For their study, the researchers surveyed more than 2,500 full-time employees to examine how people regulate their emotions with coworkers. “We studied two forms of emotion regulation — surface acting, which involves faking your positive emotions when interacting with coworkers, and deep acting, which involves actually trying to feel positive emotions and display them during your coworker exchanges,” Gabriel explained.
Using previous research on employee-customer interactions as a framework, Gabriel and her colleagues were able to identify four worker profiles: non-actors, low actors, deep actors, and regulators.
Non-actors displayed little to no surface acting and deep acting with their co-workers, low actors displayed low levels of surface and deep acting, deep actors displayed high levels of deep acting but low levels of surface acting, and regulators displayed high levels of both surface and deep acting.
“Across three studies, our results are quite clear that people who are deep actors — relying largely on deep acting with little surface acting — reap the greatest benefits in terms of lower fatigue and improved coworker treatment (i.e., receipt of more helping),” Gabriel told PsyPost.
In other words, employees who agreed with statements such as “I try to actually experience the emotions that I show to my coworkers” but disagreed with statement such as “I fake a good mood when interacting with my coworkers” were less likely to agree with statements such as “I feel emotionally drained” while at work.
Non-actors also reported similarly low levels of emotional exhaustion. But the researchers also found that, unlike non-acting, deep acting was associated with improved interpersonal work relationships and work goal progress.
“These employees also reported greater progress on work goals and trust in their coworkers,” Gabriel said. “So, it’s a win-win-win in terms of feeling good, performing well, and having positive coworker interactions. We also determined that people who were deep actors were likely doing so for prosocial reasons — they wanted to treat their coworkers with kindness because they valued these relationships.”
But the new findings — like all research — come with a few limitations.
“We still need to know whether managers pick up on these deep actors at work — do they see which employees are really trying to connect with others in a positive manner?” Gabriel said. “Are there any additional gains then to be had? And, can deep actors really build a positive emotional culture? These would be important questions to ask. Additionally, in light of remote work and COVID-19, I’d be curious whether deep acting and surface acting operate the same in virtual settings.”
In conclusion, Gabriel noted that the results highlight that “being nice is a low cost solution to so many things at work.”
“I know that sounds cheesy, but a lot of my study conclusions often boil down to this: we would all be healthier and more productive at work if we took a pause and treated each other with greater kindness.”
The study, “Are coworkers getting into the act? An examination of emotion regulation in coworker exchanges“, was authored by Allison S. Gabriel, Joel Koopman, Christopher C. Rosen, John D. Arnold, and Wayne A. Hochwarter.