Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Your Emotions at Work

There is a better way to handle workplace emotions.

Created by author from pictures freely available on Flikr Creative Commons & other sources
Source: Created by author from pictures freely available on Flikr Creative Commons & other sources

When we think of emotions, we tend to think of our personal life—the quickening pulse thinking of your beloved, the twist in your gut when you remember the fight with your sibling, the warm flush of friendship.

When we think of work, we tend to think of ... work. Clicking away, getting things done. Slogging through the tasks. Filing, writing, sweeping, emailing—whatever work your job entails. We don't tend to think of emotion.

But it turns out, the workplace is rife with emotion. If you simulate a quick tour through your working day, I think you'll see what I mean. Dealing with the outburst of the frustrated client. Managing your jealousy when your colleague receives the promotion you were anticipating. Putting on a bright smile in reaction to your boss' idea that actually is terrible. Hushed giggles gossiping with your office crush over coffee.

Some of these emotions can be expressed, but others of them need to be suppressed in order to comply with workplace norms and maintain smooth relations with your clients, boss, and team. This frisson between the emotions you are authentically feeling and the ones you are displaying to others results in something called dissonance, an uncomfortable psychological state of awareness of a disconnect.

Many times, we cover up this dissonance by changing the surface of ourselves, our facial expression and body language, acting like a character in a play. This behavior is called, rather fittingly, surface acting. We discussed surface acting previously on this blog (you can find that post here): specifically, we discussed how exhausting constant acting can be. As Anne Morrow Lindberg reflected in Gift from the Sea, "The most exhausting thing in life, I have found, is being insincere."

Thankfully, it turns out surface acting is not your only recourse. There are other options, and thankfully they are much less taxing.

How to Do Emotional Labor Right

There is more than one way to accomplish this management of feeling. Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, groups them into two types — surface acting, which involves changing your emotional display with no change to your underlying emotions, and deep acting, which involves changing your underlying emotions in order to then portray the changed emotion authentically.

The covers of The Managed Heart
Source: The covers of The Managed Heart

Both types are labor — they take work. Surface acting takes a bigger toll, because it requires a constant monitoring and application of effort. Compared to deep acting, surface acting is also associated with a host of unpleasant outcomes, from burnout to feeling depersonalized to stress headaches and muscle tension to low customer satisfaction — associations supported by a large meta-analysis of decades of research.

So how can we “do” deep acting? Hochschild points to our imaginations as the key to deep acting. One possibility is to use our imaginations tap into our lived memories. For instance, if you have to confront a colleague at work you might intentionally remember a neighbor’s slight in order to work yourself up before approaching them. If you have to portray enthusiasm for a presentation you are feeling lackluster about, you could spend some time simmering in your thoughts about crushing your upcoming half marathon before taking the stage.

Another imaginative possibility is to project yourself deeper into or further away from the people or experiences that are requiring the emotion management. For example, when dealing with an irate customer you might imagine that they have recently suffered a large personal loss and thus respond gently and sympathetically. Or when being criticized by a superior, you might adopt the cool, clinical approach of a stenographer and attempt to create a list of their suggestions for improvement.

These deep acting techniques are effortful, but once initiated, you can portray the emotion you’re now sincerely feeling — and such a process is more natural and thus both less taxing and more effective than surface acting.

The Value of Authenticity

While deep acting seems to be more effective, more humane, and less exhausting than surface acting, I do think we also need to be careful about the ways in which we are willing to sell our emotions in the workplace. In the middle of writing this piece I visited the hairdresser. Rather than engaging in the usual light small talk that frequent such interactions, she abruptly told me she needed to concentrate on my hair and asked if I had my phone to occupy myself. A while into the process, she visibly relaxed a bit and apologized: “I’m sorry, I’m usually really cheerful and chatty. I just… can’t today.” I understood completely and in fact appreciated this moment of honest, authentic connection.

We are intrigued by the unmanaged heart and what it can tell us. 
— Arlie Russell Hochschild

Heart by thechallahblog on Flikr Creative Commons
Source: Heart by thechallahblog on Flikr Creative Commons

We can’t escape the need for emotional labor, and it can contribute to a positive workplace culture and greater success of our organizations. But I think as a culture we also need to account for the power of authenticity and the importance being clued in to our own, natural emotional responses. Our emotions orient us to our personal values, drive us closer to our goals, and are the soil in which we grow our most meaningful relationships. Some part of them must remain forever our own.

I'm giving a talk on this topic in two weeks at WorkHuman - come on by if you're there!

More from Sarah Rose Cavanagh Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today