Are You Surface Acting At Work?

April 7, 2016 Sarah Payne

While most of us aren’t professional actors, managing the emotions that we express to other people at work is par for the course. It can also be exhausting. What kind of toll does such emotion regulation take on well-being? How does it impact team functioning and culture?

Surface acting at work is a topic Sarah Rose Cavanagh, associate professor of psychology at Assumption College, will be discussing at Workhuman next month. Her research is focused on how emotion regulation impacts quality of life and she often works with teams and organizations to apply the science of emotion to real-world challenges. Read more in her column for Psychology Today, Once More with Feeling.

We had the chance to ask Sarah a few questions about how leaders can apply this research in the workplace to build better teams. Read the full Q&A below.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and academic focus?

I’m a professor of psychology at Assumption College, where I teach about emotion, motivation, and neuroscience. My research explores how we manage or regulate our emotions in our daily lives, and how these techniques can predict changes in well-being over time. I’ve studied this relationship between emotion regulation and well-being in college students, in people with histories of depression, and in people who have been through trauma. Most recently I joined our Center for Teaching Excellence as an Associate Director for Grants and Research, and we’re pursuing a grant-funded study to see if giving college students some tools to manage their classroom emotions can aid their learning.

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?

Is there anything people don’t know about each other in this era of social media? Ha. One thing people have told me is surprising as they’re getting to know me is the contrast between my demeanor, which is pretty soft-spoken and gentle, and my taste in music and books and film, which tends toward the darker, louder side of the spectrum. My good friend in graduate school used to get into my car and hear my music and say, “Sarah, why is that man screaming?”

What is surface acting? What role does it play in workplace dynamics?

We engage in surface acting when we intentionally portray emotions that we aren’t currently feeling. This can happen when we need to exude positivity (think of the folks working at Disney World) and when we need to hide negative emotions, such as masking your immediate dislike of a colleague’s proposal. The degree of surface acting required by your job varies based on the type of work you do. It has been most extensively studied in service workers, who need to put on a bright pleasant smile for most of their working hours—even when interacting with unpleasant customers. But I think any job that requires you to interact and work with other people, be they your employees or managers or clients, requires some degree of surface acting in order to maintain group cohesion.

So is surface acting a positive force in the workplace or a negative one?

As is so often the case with psychology, it depends! It depends on both the individual and the situational context. Relentless surface acting is extremely draining, physically and emotionally, because it requires constant application of effort. Anne Morrow Lindbergh once said, “The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere.” This effect may be particularly true for introverts.

On the other hand, if everyone went around all day authentically expressing all of their frustrations and irritations, the workplace could get ugly pretty fast and morale would suffer.

I think the solution is to look to the research to find ways to maintain smooth, positive relations with others without having to constantly monitor and consciously update the emotions you’re expressing. For instance, some research points to the idea that the best approach to surface acting is to find a way to really feel the emotion yourself – which is actually no longer surface acting, but something we call “deep acting.” If you can elicit authentic emotions within yourself and then portray those, you won’t pay the same energy toll that you do with surface acting. And you’ll probably be more believable too.

How can leaders use the science of emotion to improve work culture?

There are so many interconnections between emotion science and work culture! I think the time has come for we academic researchers to step outside of our laboratories and share some of the latest research with industry, where we can see these ideas in action.

Emotion science can inform which products and projects industry develops, how they can motivate employees and teams to greater heights of functioning, how they can maximize smooth team dynamics, and how leaders can engage and energize their workforce. For instance, academic researchers have been hard at work studying emotional display rules, emotional contagion (how emotions spread from one person to another), and predictors of effective team functioning. All of these pursuits have implications for the working world.

You have a book coming out later this year. Can you give us a preview of what it’s about?

Absolutely! The book takes a similar approach to what I just discussed in terms of using emotion science to inform workplace dynamics but from the perspective of education. I review evidence from neuroscience, psychology, and education that argues that understanding emotion science can inform our practices in the classroom—from how we present ourselves, to the activities we engage in during class, to the assignments we give our students.

What role do you think social recognition has in creating positive emotion at work?

I think it is absolutely critical. To be continually motivated, people can’t work in a vacuum. We need to see that we’re reaching milestones and having an impact. Research on goal-setting emphasizes the need for positive reinforcement for short-term goals that build toward long-term goals. We crave validation, and social validation in particular.

Given your research focus, what does a human workplace mean to you?

A human workplace maximizes the autonomy of its individual employees while also being conscious of the emotional dynamics of team cohesion. People should feel that they are arbiters of their work and that they ultimately are responsible for and proud of their output. At the same time, they also need to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves, that they are a member of a team that is reaching toward something some higher purpose that transcends the bottom line. A balance between these two priorities will yield the most human workplace.

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Ready to learn more about emotion in the workplace? Register for Workhuman Live today and don’t miss Sarah’s breakout session on Wednesday, May 11th.