Emotional Labour: Managing your Emotions for a Wage

Originally written for Nkwazi Magazine

What happens when you feel so sad at work that you want to cry, yet you don’t? Or you are verbally abused by a client, get angry but still smile and listen? Or you find something outrageously funny during a stakeholder meeting but stifle your laughter to maintain the expected decorum? In such circumstances we practice emotional labour, that is we attempt to influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how these emotions are expressed.

The 21st-century workplace is characterised by service work and team interactions, which necessitate a lot of emotional labour. Like actors in a (very long) play, employees use deep and surface acting to respond to their emotional labour demands. Deep acting occurs before an emotional response is fully triggered. Conversely, surface acting occurs after an emotion has been fully triggered.

To illustrate, imagine a client screaming at you for perceived poor service. In such a scenario, your organisation has put forward certain guidelines about how you should feel and act – service with a smile. When using surface acting, you would keep a calm demeanour on the outside while fighting every urge to jump across the desk and hit the screaming client (perhaps I embellish). This is because the emotion of anger/frustration would have been fully triggered, however, goals such as not getting fired for client assault would restrict you from acting on them. Conversely, if you are using deep acting to regulate your emotion you may choose to see the screaming from the clients’ point of view or perhaps remember that most clients are sensitive, thus regulating the emotion before it is fully triggered.

When employees proficiently carry out their emotional labour it leads to a host of individual and organisational benefits;

  • Better customer service and sales – studies show that salespeople who appropriately regulate their emotions outperform those who do not.
  • Better teamwork and collaboration among staff.
  • Greater employee satisfaction and engagement.
  • Lower employee turnover and recruitment costs – lest we forget that people leave bad bosses as well as organisations.
  • Being ahead of the competition – very few organisations link their business success with their emotional conduct.

Deep Acting vs Surface Acting

However, the catch is that only deep acting brings about these individual and organisational benefits. Surface acting has been linked to challenges such as employee burnout, low satisfaction, low team innovation and poor client satisfaction. This can partly be attributed to the fact that surface acting occurs after the emotion has been fully triggered.

Let us imagine that your emotions are a car at the top of a hill, if the car only slightly moves, it’s pretty easy to stop it. However, 30 seconds later when it’s rolling down that hill at full speed with gravity edging it on, it’s a completely different story. So it is with emotional labour, if you can regulate your emotions while they’re still at the top of the hill it’s easier to do and has better results than regulating when they are fully triggered.

Now, if you’re anything like me you’re probably thinking well surely it should take more than emotional labour to be a great employee and I’m inclined to agree. It is widely agreed that effective performance and success in various avenues of life is also dependent on Cognitive Capacities (Intelligence Quotient, IQ) and Technical Skills (Capabilities). However, given that the emotional centre of the brain can ‘hi-jack’ the prefrontal cortex which is in charge of executive functions such as critical thinking, it is definitely worth using deep acting to regulate your emotions in the workplace.

Luckily, you don’t have to be born a deep actor, it can be developed and practised. Here are a few things that can get you started on that journey;

  • Think before you act – It goes without saying but take a second to objectively think about what’s happening. One grounding technique would be asking yourself what a person in your professional role would do in your situation.
  • Manage your stress and stressors – You have to give yourself a fighting chance! It’s a lot easier to be a deep actor when you are well-rested, eating, and have healthy relationships in your life. It seems counterintuitive, but the happier you are in other areas of your life the easier it is to be happy at work.
  • Reflect on the show – I’ll be first to admit, emotions are interesting and completed creatures. Thirty minutes into your boss berating you may be challenging, and you may relapse into surface acting (faking that all is well). Just always remember to reflect on what triggered your emotions and how you can better deal with such scenarios in the future.

“Our feelings are not there to be cast out or conquered. They’re there to be engaged and expressed with imagination and intelligence.” ― T.K. Coleman

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