The World of Work Project

Emotional Labor: Dissonance and Surface and Deep Acting

Emotional labor is the effort we put into managing our emotions at work, or at home. We can do this by surface acting (faking emotions), which requires little effort but which damages wellbeing, or by deep acting (feeling emotions) which is effortful, but protects wellbeing.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Emotional labor

Throughout the world of work people find themselves in situations in which they must manage their emotions. Examples include caring for others, dealing with rude customers, responding well to unfair feedback, managing the emotional roller-coaster of organizational change or simply working well with people who you dislike.

Managing your emotions in all of these situations is difficult and takes effort. The name that is given to this type of effort is “Emotional Labor”. In other words, emotional labor is the effort that we put into managing our emotions.

When we think of effort we usually think of physical effort, but emotional effort is also a thing.

That word “effort” is important. Managing our emotions in these situations does require effort, and that effort is tiring. Emotionally charged events or meetings can tire people out and, over time, undertaking a lot of emotional labor can be draining. In the longer term emotional effort can even undermine an individual’s sense of wellbeing and lead to stress.

In some instances in the world of work, people need to adopt emotional positions (through emotional labor) that they may not fundamentally agree with. They may need to behave in certain ways that go against their core beliefs of values. For example they may need to sternly provide critical feedback to someone when they themselves do not agree with that feedback, or they may need to enthusiastically congratulate someone else’s success that they do not actually value. When this happens people may experience “emotional dissonance”, a discord between how they feel on the inside and how they need to act. Again, emotional dissonance can be very tiring, particularly over longer periods of time.

So based on all of this it’s clearly important to manage emotions and behave in the right way in the world of work. The act of doing this is emotional labor, but there are actually two different ways that people demonstrate the right behaviors and emotions in the workplace. They both involve acting. The first way is called “surface acting” and the second is called “deep acting”.

Surface acting

There’s an element of acting in this mentality.

Surface acting is simply the act of pretending that you feel in a certain way. You just fake the emotions that you need at the time and get on with things. An example of this could be putting a big smile on and chatting enthusiastically with a customer even though you’re feeling sad and distracted at the time.

In the short term, surface acting doesn’t take much effort. It can be a helpful strategy for occasional instances. Over time though, surface acting is problematic for wellbeing. Constantly pretending to be something you’re not is draining.

Deep acting

Deep Acting is the second form of emotional labor. When individuals adopt deep acting, they invest time, effort and energy to change their underlying mood to fit the required mood in their place of work. For example, individuals may increase their level of exercise, complete “gratitude” activities, meditate and keep a positivity journal in an effort to increase their happiness and enthusiasm.

How deeply do you act?

While there is a significant outlay of energy to act deeply, it’s probably a better strategy in the long term as deep acting is less detrimental for wellbeing than surface acting.

That said, it’s not always easy to get yourself to the stage of actually wanting to feel the way you should, particularly if there is an underlying values conflict or element of emotional dissonance.

The World of Work Project View

Emotional labor is a fascinating subject. Everyone will have experienced emotional labor and the tiring effect it can have, though perhaps not everyone will understand that emotional behavior takes effort and is tiring.

It’s clear from the details above that deep acting is probably the better long term strategy in most cases, because it is less damaging for wellbeing. However, deciding that you want to adopt a deep acting approach is itself difficult, particularly if you face a value conflict or other forms of emotional dissonance.

Just because you know that you can make yourself feel the way you should in a place of work by adjusting your emotions, doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the right thing for you (or the organization) in the long term.

For example, if you manage your emotions so well (through wellbeing activities) that you feel happy despite undertaking actions that go against your values (for example doing things you consider unethical) then you can deep-act your way through a role, but in the long term may feel that you’ve let yourself down or been used in a way that causes you to feel regret.

Overall we think the idea of emotional labor is excellent and that it’s a subject that individuals and leaders should learn and reflect on.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based on various articles and reading, but for an introduction to the overall subject it’s probably best to first look at Arlie Hochschild’s book “The Second Shift“.

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