Don't Just Fake It: 'Deep Acting' Emotions Pays Off at Work

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People who try to be positive with their coworkers receive significantly higher levels of support from them.

Faking positive emotions for coworkers can do more harm than good, researchers say. Making an effort to actually feel them, however, can produce personal and professional benefits.

For a new study, researchers analyzed 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,” says Allison Gabriel, associate professor of management and organizations in the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona.

“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 coworkers, 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 says.

Gabriel says when it comes to regulating emotions with coworkers, 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
  • Regulators, or those who displayed high levels of surface and deep acting

In each study, nonactors made up the smallest group. The other three groups were 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 coworker 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 impression management motives drove regulators, in particular, while deep actors were significantly more likely to be motivated by prosocial concerns. This means that deep actors choose to regulate their emotions with coworkers to foster positive work relationships, as opposed to being motivated by gaining access to more resources.

“The main takeaway,” Gabriel says, “is that deep actors—those who are really trying to be positive with their coworkers—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 coworkers, 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 coworkers than the other three groups.

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

“Regulators suffered the most on our markers of well-being, including increased levels of feeling emotionally exhausted and inauthentic at work,” Gabriel says.

While some managers Gabriel spoke to during the course of her 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, she says.

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

“In many ways, it all boils down to, ‘Let’s be nice to each other.’ Not only will people feel better, but people’s performance and social relationships can also improve.”

The research appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Additional coauthors are from Texas A&M University, the University of Arkansas, and Florida State University.