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Don’t Grin and Bear it: Fake Smiles at Work Could Lead to Unethical Behavior, Study Finds

Work

Faking a smile at work could mean more than becoming someone that at the moment you’re not. It could leave you more vulnerable to acting like someone you don’t want to be.

The “emotional labor” behind putting on a happy face in front of customers when you’re not genuinely in a good mood can lead to unethical behavior toward coworkers, bosses, and even the public, according to a study co-authored by Brent Scott, a professor in the Department of Management at the Eli Broad College of Business.

“They feel inauthentic … when people feel fake, they act in more unethical ways,” Scott said.

The behaviors spurred on by emotional inauthenticity aren’t federal crimes, but they’re not behaviors a workplace wants to cultivate: dragging out work to get overtime pay; concealing errors; passing blame for errors to innocent coworkers, and claiming credit for someone else’s work.

Other unethical behaviors that are projected toward customers: concealing or withholding negative information about products or services; exaggerating or misrepresenting the truth about the same, and failing to inform customers of important changes to products or services.

In the study, co-authored with Michelle C. Hong of North Dakota State University and Christopher M. Barnes of the University of Washington, researchers looked at full-time, public-facing employees in jobs that explicitly or implicitly required a display of positive emotions toward customers; think a salesperson, cashier, or waiter.

“It kind of goes without saying that employees wouldn’t always be in such a state … so they have to do things, or act, in ways to cultivate or achieve that display of happiness,” Scott said.

There are two primary ways workers put on that happy face. The first way is called “deep acting,” where one does things that put them in a good mood, such as considering the positives of their current situation or recalling a pleasant memory, Scott said.

“They’re actually doing something to cultivate or generate a positive emotion,” Scott said.

The other technique is called “surface acting,” which is “pretty simple. It’s just faking it,” Scott said. “You’re not feeling it on the inside,” and it requires the active suppression of the actual emotion one has inside.

Prior studies show that “surface acting overwhelmingly is bad for people. It’s more depleting; it’s more stressful; it creates feelings of dissonance between what they’re displaying and what they’re feeling, which is not pleasant to experience,” said Scott, adding that customers “may react adversely to it because they detect when they’re being lied to.”

With deep acting, results are a mixed bag. People on the receiving end react well because the smiles “are real, from their sense. The displays have actually been generated.” But from the employee’s standpoint, they still had to engage in an effort to deep act.

“If they keep doing it over time, they may not feel like themselves because they’re always working to be someone else,” Scott said.

One key takeout from the study for employees is to avoid surface acting, period.

“There are significant costs associated with it; not only unethical behavior … So that begs the question, what else do you do?” Scott said. “[If] you can’t just be your natural self, then use deep acting strategies,” which isn’t great but less harmful than surface acting.

However, that puts all the responsibility on the employee. “I think there’s something else you can ask, which is, why are they in a bad mood in the first place?” Scott said. Businesses “need to create an environment or situation that naturally cultivates positive emotions on a more frequent basis, so there is no need to act in the first place.”

There are many things businesses can do in that regard, Scott said, “Positive emotions are induced by favorable events and situations, so to the extent that you can increase the frequency of those, then you would create an environment where the displays are going to come naturally. Fair treatment; making sure that recognition is provided; collegiality; support from coworkers; and overall a positive climate in general.”

Still, “no one is perfect; no organization is perfect. There are still times when employees are going to be in a bad mood, from things they take with them from home or elsewhere, so you’re not always going to have happy employees,” Scott said. “And in that case, I would say you deep act.”

Customers can play their own role in helping employees manage their emotional labor by “realizing that employees aren’t always going to be in a happy mood, and it’s not necessarily anything that the customer did — it could be external events — and not to attribute a bad mood to something that they perhaps did,” Scott said.

“And recognize that even if they are fake smiling, that they are still trying to put their best foot forward … try to understand that ‘okay, this person is not being authentic with me, but at the very least, they are trying to achieve a good interaction here.’” Scott said.

What’s next? Scott is now working on a study looking at the effects on workers when a negative display of emotions is sometimes required for a job; think drill sergeants, bill collectors, police officers, managers delivering negative feedback to employees, judges, lawyers, and such.

“There are lots of situations in jobs that may call for the display of negative emotions,” Scott said.

  • Omar Sofradzija via Eli Broad College of Business News

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