Hiding your feelings at work can lead to poor productivity


If you’re more likely to really feel the emotions you show at work, rather than fake a positive attitude, you’re on the right track.

That is according to researchers at the University of Arizona who carried out a study that looked at two types of emotion regulation that people use at work: surface acting and deep acting.

"Surface acting is faking what you're displaying to other people. Inside, you may be upset or frustrated, but on the outside, you're trying your best to be pleasant or positive," said Allison Gabriel, associate professor of management and organisations in the Eller College of Management, who led the study.

Deep acting, on the other hand, is trying to change how you feel inside.

“When you're deep acting, you're actually trying to align how you feel with how you interact with other people," explained Gabriel.

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Feel your emotions: it’s more productive

Working adults from various industries such as education, manufacturing, engineering and financial services were surveyed in the study.

The researchers wanted to determine whether people do the following:

  • Choose to engage in emotion regulation when interacting with their co-workers
  • Choose to regulate their emotions if there is no formal rule requiring them to do so
  • Benefit from these efforts (and the nature of these benefits)

When it comes to regulating emotions with co-workers, four types of people emerged from the study:

  • Non-actors, or those engaging in negligible levels of surface and deep acting
  • Low actors, or those displaying slightly higher surface and deep acting
  • Deep actors, or those who displayed the highest levels of deep acting and low levels of surface acting
  • Regulators, or those who displayed high levels of surface and deep acting

In each study, non-actors made up the smallest group, with the other three groups being similar in size.

What does this mean?

After identifying several drivers for engaging in emotion regulation, the researchers sorted them into two categories: prosocial and impression management.

Prosocial motives simply include wanting to be a good co-worker and to cultivate good relationships with your colleagues. Impression motives, on the other hand, include gaining access to resources or looking good in front of colleagues and supervisors – making this driver more strategic.

They found that, while the regulators of the study were driven by strategic behaviour, deep actors were less motivated by gaining access to resources. Instead, what mattered to them more was fostering positive work relationships.

'Feeling it' can be beneficial

Masking your emotions at work will, ultimately, have its consequences.

It is the “deep actors – those who are really trying to be positive with their co-workers – who do so for prosocial reasons and reap significant benefits from these efforts," said Gabriel.  

And the benefits are worth it: receiving high levels of support from your co-workers, such as assistance with workloads, and even snippets of advice.

If you need more motivation to help you get in touch with your feelings, the study reported that deep actors also have higher levels progress on their work goals and trust in their co-workers – more so than the other three groups.

"Maybe plastering on a smile to simply get out of an interaction is easier in the short run, but long term, it will undermine efforts to improve your health and the relationships you have at work," Gabriel said.

Putting on a front can make you unhappy

If you consciously “fake” a good attitude at work, you’re likely to be a lot less happy with your job than those that don’t have to do this, notes a 2017 article by Forbes that reported on data from a test involving 5 000 people.

Over time, the act of constantly forcing a smile or faking positivity at work is bound to catch up with you and cause real fatigue and burn out, explained the author of the article. The test further revealed an even bigger discovery: that 51% of respondents who have to “put on a show” are also 32% less likely to love their job.

Emotional labour

Emotional labour, which, as explained in this article by the BBC, is typically the work we do to regulate our emotions in order to create “a publicly visible facial and bodily display within the workplace”, is something most people – regardless of occupation – do every day.

The article, discussing a labour study, goes on to say that maintaining that façade can “become too much”.

So, it appears that remaining authentic and avoiding the “fake it until you make it” tactic, or really just paying attention to managing your emotions at work is ultimately of greater benefit to your own well-being.

Image: iStock

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