The idea that someone can fake a positive attitude to elicit real-life benefits – often backfires when used with co-workers, a new study suggests.
Instead, making an effort to actually feel the emotions you display is more productive, according to the research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
For the findings, the research team analysed 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 study researcher Allison Gabriel, Associate Professor at University of Arizona in the US.
“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,” Gabriel added.
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,” Gabriel said.
According to the researchers, when it comes to regulating emotions with co-workers, four types of people emerged from the study: Nonactors, 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 exhibited the highest levels of deep acting and low levels of surface acting; and,Regulators, or those who displayed high levels of surface and deep acting.
In each study, nonactors 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, in particular, 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 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, said the study.
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.