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‘Service with a smile’ can be costly, if not managed well

Datum:09 mei 2017
Auteur:Rachel Gifford
‘Service with a smile’ can be costly, if not managed well
‘Service with a smile’ can be costly, if not managed well

As a consumer,  a positive customer service experience can make all the difference. The idea of ‘service with a smile’ is certainly what most of us would hope to experience, rather than the heated confrontations as witnessed in the recent, highly-publicized American Airlines baby stroller incident (http://tinyurl.com/n8g4x93). However, what does it really take to ensure ‘service with a smile’?  For employees, the regulation of emotions, often when faced with time pressure or even abuse, is likely to come at a cost.

Emotion management has gotten increased attention since Arlie Hochschild’s seminal work on ’emotional labor’ (1). Describing emotion management (e.g. service with a smile when you are facing a difficult customer) that service workers engaged in as a form of ‘’labor’’ changed the way we looked at emotions. No longer were emotions just relegated to the private realm of home and personal life, but emotions had become a commodity, something to be bought, sold, and appropriated by employers.

Hochschild (2) argued that organizations put requirements on employees not only to abide by the company’s behavioral standards, but also to ‘feel’ or ‘display’ the appropriate presentation of one’s emotional state. You may consider the cheerful call center employee speaking to an irate customer, or the friendly flight attendants who alter their facial and bodily displays to appear friendly in the face of, sometimes, rude, indignant, and inappropriate customers. In such cases, employees engage in a form of ‘surface acting,’ or ‘faking’ facial and bodily displays of emotions that do not mimic their actual feelings. Surface acting (e.g. faking) is associated with emotional dissonance and has been shown to be harmful to well-being, increase stress, and decrease performance. Employees who experience emotional dissonance, especially with surface acting, have been linked  to higher turnover intentions, dissatisfaction at work, and unexcused absenteeism (4)(5).

While it has been shown that such emotional labor is bad, Humphrey et al (3) recently argued that emotional labor may have a ‘bright side.’  They argue that surface acting is only one type of emotional labor (and indeed is the most detrimental form of emotional labor), but that another type of emotional labor, ‘deep acting’, may have positive effects. With deep acting, individuals actually try to conjure the emotion and may recall previous experiences and thoughts that can help in this process. They are not faking, but actually trying to feel the targeted emotion. Deep-acting, it is argued, may actually improve job performance without affecting well-being (3). We can consider here a care-worker who calls upon personal experience with their own elderly parents when helping to assist with an elderly client that is being difficult. As a care-worker is dictated by ‘rules’ that call for compassion and support, even in the moment where the worker may experience frustration, the employee may call on personal experiences with their own family members to remain sympathetic and supportive.

Recent studies show that this type of emotional labor, ‘deep acting’, may actually be beneficial, showing positive effects for both employees and employers and clients (4).  Deep-acting has been shown to be associated with job satisfaction, commitment, performance, and higher customer satisfaction (3). 

However, this may not be generally valid. Deep acting may in fact also come at a cost.  Emotions are connected with the self, and are central to the way we experience our workplace and ourselves. We use emotions to gage what is valuable to us. Our emotions function as a selection mechanism to rule out the things we do not enjoy, are not suited for, and the things that may be damaging to us. In this way, our emotions become a gauge for our identity (3). This means that when emotions become co-opted for organizational means, employees may feel it is their identity which is being appropriated. Thus, deep acting strategies may only work for employees who highly identify with their role, such as carers who are dedicated to helping others. This is because individuals who highly identify and value their roles are happier to engage in emotional labor to fulfill the expectations of their role (3).

In today’s workplace, emotion management is increasingly important for employees as work becomes more diverse, complex, and subject to constant change. Accordingly, emotions of employees are also important considerations for managers. The question is then: what role can management play?  While this question has yet to be fully answered by scholars, there are some promising ideas. If we agree that some form of emotional labor may be beneficial, particularly in industries such as hospitality, customer service, and healthcare, then it’s a matter of figuring out how to encourage employees to engage in deep acting rather than surface acting.

I have three suggestions for managers on how to manage emotions:

  • First, individuals who perceive a poor fit between themselves and their work will be more likely to experience negative effects of engaging in emotional labor, and more likely to engage in surface acting. Ensuring good person-environment fit is the job of management, and requires appropriate recruitment procedures, training and job design(3). To help in this regard, organizations may employ personality tests and survey emotional intelligence of potential employees. They may also be advised to discuss the requirements of emotional labor and role expectations and employ situational interviews at the recruitment stage.
  • Second, companies in industries where emotional labor is a common occurrence should consider incorporating a more open discussion about employees’ emotional displays at work. Leaders are also a strong influence in the work environment, and should model correct emotional displays and encourage open conversation. Training and education programs are also important.
  • Third, tying in the importance of emotion management with the broader aims and goals of the company may help make it meaningful for employees and encourage the ‘bright side of emotional labor.’

It is the job of management to make sure that the correct people are hired and trained, so that emotional labor can produce benefits and to avoid the negative effects such as turnover, burnout, and absenteeism. Once hired, leaders should play an active role in modeling behavior, and training programs should be incorporated. If done correctly, emotional labor can be a positive thing for not only the organization and the customers, but also for the employee.

Rachel Gifford, PhD - University of Groningen, Faculty of Economics and Business, Department of HRM & Organizational Behavior. Email: r.e.gifford@rug.nl

  1. Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  2. Ashforth, B. E., & Humphrey, R. H. (1993). Emotional labor in service roles: The influence of identity. Academy of Management Review. 18. 88–115.
  3. Humphrey, R. H., Ashforth, B.E., Diefendorff, J.M. (2015). "The Bright Side of Emotional Labor." Journal of Organizational Behavior 36 (6). 749-769. doi:10.1002/job.2019.
  4. Kammeyer-Mueller, J. D., Rubenstein, A. L., Long, D. M., Odio, M. A., Buckman, B. R., Zhang, Y., et al. (2013). A meta-analytic structural model of dispositional affectivity and emotional labor. Personnel Psychology. 66. 47–90.
  5. Celik, D.A., Oz, E.U., 2011. The effects of emotional dissonance and quality of work life perceptions on absenteeism and turnover intentions among Turkish call center employees. Social and Behavioral Sciences. 2515–2519.

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