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Don’t Just Put on a Happy Face at Work

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Research on the risks of pretending to feel happy.

It’s likely that you experience a variety of negative emotions every day — from waking up on the wrong side of the bed, to feeling frustrated during your commute, to being bothered by the pile of emails that awaits you at work. But you probably don’t express all those emotions once you get to work. After all, there are implicit norms for treating those around you with respect and courtesy, and you don’t want to create the impression that you’re constantly frustrated or irritated with them. You may also have heard about the benefits of maintaining a more optimistic outlook.

But is there really an advantage to being positive around your coworkers? And what are the most successful ways to do it? To answer these questions, we surveyed over 2,500 full-time employees in a variety of industries ranging from finance to healthcare to education (our research is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology). Our findings suggest that positivity has some real benefits — but it also shows that not all attempts at appearing positive are created equal.

Previous research has shown that that emotional regulation (often referred to as emotional labor) is particularly pervasive in certain sectors of the workforce such as customer service, where there are explicit norms to engage in “service with a smile.” But we focused our research instead on interactions with coworkers — we wondered whether those situations would elicit similar demands to regulate one’s emotions.

Surface acting and deep acting

We first asked our study participants to rate the extent to which they regulated their emotions with coworkers using two emotion regulation strategies — surface acting and deep acting. We also asked them about the benefits of engaging in these strategies towards their coworkers.

When you feel one emotion and attempt to express another, you’re surface acting. Imagine you arrive at work frustrated after a bad commute. You might fake a smile to a coworker while you’re grabbing a morning cup of coffee, even though you’re still not feeling particularly positive inside.

When you’re deep acting, on the other hand, you try to change how you feel internally in the hope that you can authentically display more positive emotions. After your frustrating commute, you might reappraise what’s good about your day and what you like about your work to help you put on a smile (“I feel grateful to have made it here on time and am excited to see my team”).

Our results indicated that people who engaged in high amounts of deep acting paired with low amounts of surface acting — people we termed deep actors — reaped the greatest benefits. These individuals felt better at work, reporting lower levels of fatigue. They also reported productivity-related benefits: receiving more help from their coworkers — both personal help (such as having someone listen to their problems) and task help (having added assistance when workloads got too high). Coworkers seem to notice their efforts to be positive, and reward them materially. Because of the help they received, deep actors also reported improved progress on their work goals and higher levels of trust with their coworkers.

But what about surface actors? Interestingly, our study didn’t reveal a set of people who relied more on surface acting than deep acting. That may be because because people interact with their coworkers fairly regularly, which would mean they’d have to be faking a lot of the time. But we did find a group of people who showed both high levels of surface acting and high levels of deep acting — a group we called regulators. Although they were deep acting, these individuals had a less rosy experience. In addition to feeling burned out (likely because they were not being genuine) and more inauthentic (likely because of the surface acting), they also reported receiving less support from the people they worked with. Coworkers do seem to pay attention to our emotional cues, and those that are inauthentic can be harmful.

Why put on a smile?

We also wanted to understand why employees choose to be positive with their coworkers to begin with, given that there are no formal rules dictating that they do so. Did it have something to do with their interpersonal relationships? With their work ambitions?

We found that this underlying reason was different depending on how the individual chose to manage their emotions. Deep actors were more likely to say they were being positive for prosocial reasons — because they liked their coworkers and valued their relationships with them. Regulators, on the other hand, tended to control their emotions for impression management — to avoid looking bad, or to try and get ahead at work. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that deep actors’ colleagues were more willing to offer help and support.

Based on our results, it is clear to us that being positive through genuine attempts to feel better yourself offers more benefits compared to simply faking your emotions. The next time you feel a bad mood coming on, take a step back and remember that having high-quality connections with your coworkers can be valuable to you, and to creating a better work environment. That should hopefully help you break a true smile.

Allison S. Gabriel is an Associate Professor and Robbins Fellow in the Department of Management and Organizations at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.

Joel Koopman is an assistant professor in the Department of Management at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.

Christopher C. Rosen is a professor and John H. Tyson Chair in Business Management in the Department of Management at the University of Arkansas’ Sam M. Walton College of Business.

John D. Arnold is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University and will start in July 2020 as an assistant professor in the Management Department at the University of Missouri’s Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business.

Wayne Hochwarter is the Jim Moran Professor of Organizational Behavior and Research Fellow at the Moran School of Entrepreneurship at Florida State University, and a Research Fellow at Australia Catholic University.

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