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Oklahoma State University

Faking emotions at work: the positive and negative side of workplace acting

Friday, March 29, 2019

In many jobs, employees are expected to act happy, or at least friendly, even when they just don’t feel like it. So, it’s not unusual that workers occasionally fake positive feelings, even when the results actually make them feel worse. But research by an Oklahoma State University professor has found that a person can actually feel better by doing the opposite, or faking negative emotions.

Spears School of Business assistant professor of management Anna Lennard studies emotional regulation, or controlling emotions, in the workplace. One of the ways people do that is by surface acting, or faking emotions, both negative and positive. Just about every restaurant server, customer service representative or even university professor has had to act friendly and positive when they don’t actually feel that way, Lennard said. But what about when you have to fake being mad or frustrated when you really feel great inside.

“Surface acting arises because there are emotional demands in the workplace,” Lennard said. “There is a lot of research from the service industry about negative ramifications of surface acting like emotional exhaustion that can affect your work and spill over into your home life. But we looked at faking being sad or frustrated, rather than happy, and that might actually have positive implications. We found that faking being upset when you’re happy can actually make you feel happier.”

Lennard and her co-authors challenged the commonly held notion in the literature that faking emotions is inherently bad for well-being by studying 79 managers in the workplace over a three-week period. What they found is that surface acting intensifies the authentic, underlying feelings a person is experiencing, regardless of whether those feelings are positive or negative.

“So, if you’re faking being happy, the authentic feeling of being unhappy is exacerbated,” Lennard said. “And in the reverse, if you’re faking being upset and you’re actually happy, that feeling is intensified. Our research shows that repressing a feeling makes that feeling even stronger. It’s similar to this idea of an elephant in the room and that by ignoring it you’re even more likely to think about it.”

Lennard and co-authors Brent Scott and Russell Johnson at Michigan State University published their research March 5 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which is recognized by Spears Business as an aspirational, high-impact journal.

“Aspirational journals are the most elite academic journals for publishing business research,” said Ramesh Sharda, vice dean of Spears Business. “Publications in these journals impact Spears School of Business faculty members’ visibility and thus also our school’s reputation among all academics.”

Lennard’s article is significant in the study of emotional regulation in the workplace because so little research has been done to understand the positive side of feigning emotions. The strain of controlling one’s emotions at work can be heavy, but employees do have tools to use in their emotional tool belt.

“We all surface act in different ways in our jobs and there are actually ways in which you can shape this necessary work experience to have positive impacts on your life. This positive side of surface acting is not well understood and that is why our research is important.”

Lennard is now shifting her research to focus on the impacts of faking neutral, or stoic, emotions, an example of which is a doctor delivering bad news to a patient.

“It wouldn’t be right if the doctor appeared happy or if they cried or showed too much sadness, which might make it even worse for the patient,” she said. “We don’t understand the emotional implications of that, so that’s a new area I want to move into next.”

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