Faking emotions at work does more harm than good

January 26, 2020

Listen to this article

Faking emotions at work does more harm than good

The adage “Fake it until you make it” –the idea that someone can fake a positive attitude to elicit real-life benefits—often backfires when used with co-workers, according to a new study.


Instead, researchers say, making an effort to actually feel the emotions you display is more productive. The team analyzed two types of emotion regulation that people use at work: surface acting and deep acting.


What the researchers say: “Surface acting is faking what you’re displaying to other people,” said the lead author. “Inside, you maybe upset or frustrated, but on the outside, you’re trying your best to be pleasant or positive. Deep acting 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.”


The study surveyed working adults in a wide variety of industries including education, manufacturing, engineering and financial services.


“What we wanted to know is whether people choose to engage in emotion regulation when interacting with their co-workers, why they choose to regulate their emotions if there is no formal rule requiring them to do so,and what benefits, if any, they get out of this effort,” she said.


The researchers found that when it comes to regulating emotions with co-workers, four types of people emerged from the study:


1.      Non-actors, or those engaging in negligible levels of surface and deep acting;

2.      Low actors, or those displaying slightly higher surface and deep acting;

3.      Deep actors, or those who exhibited the highest levels of deep acting and low levels of surface acting; and,

4.      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.


The researchers identified several drivers for engaging in emotion regulation and sorted them into two categories: prosocial and impression management. Prosocial motives include wanting to be a good co-worker and cultivating positive relationships. Impression management motives are more strategic and include gaining access to resources or looking good in front of colleagues and supervisors.


The team found that regulators were driven by impression management motives, while deep actors were significantly more likely to be motivated by prosocial concerns. This means that deep actors are choosing to regulate their emotions with co-workers to foster positive work relationships,as opposed to being motivated by gaining access to more resources.


“The main takeaway,” the lead researcher said, “is that deep actors—those who are really trying to be positive with their co-workers—do so for prosocial reasons and reap significant benefits from these efforts.”


According to the researchers, those benefits include receiving significantly higher levels of support from co-workers, such as help with workloads and offers of advice. Deep actors also reported significantly higher levels of progress on their work goals and trust in their co-workers than the other three groups.


The data also showed that mixing high levels of surface and deep acting resulted in physical and mental strain.


While some managers the researchers spoke to during the course of their research still believe emotions have little to do with the workplace, the study results suggest there is a benefit to displaying positive emotions during interactions at work.


“I think the ‘fake it until you make it’ idea suggests a survival tactic at work,” the lead author said. “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.”


So, what? We all have a deep need to fit in in order to to get the maximum benefit from relationships. This study is very useful in that it dispels two widely held myths: the “fake it till you make it” one and the idea that emotions have no place in the work arena. This latter is pernicious nonsense—everything we do involves both relational calculus and emotional motivation.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

Join the discussion

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.