Faking Your Emotions Backfires If Used with Co-Workers: Study
Fri, December 3, 2021

Faking Your Emotions Backfires If Used with Co-Workers: Study

Some people believe that faking emotions is an effective skill, such as when applied to imitate an optimistic mindset, optimism, competence, and confidence / Photo by: Benjawan Sittidech via 123RF


Negative emotions like anger, sadness, and fear are a part of life but some struggle with dealing with these emotions effectively. This makes it tempting for others to cover up their other emotions. Some people believe that faking emotions is an effective skill, such as when applied to imitate an optimistic mindset, optimism, competence, and confidence. This is the reason the aphorism “Fake it till you make it” has become popular

Altering Emotional Displays

A new study, however, reveals that faking emotions will do more harm than good if used with co-workers. The authors led by Allison Gabriel, who is an associate professor of management and organizations in the Eller College of Management, shared the two types of emotion regulation that people use at work: deep acting and surface acting.

Surface acting means faking emotions. Inside, you may be frustrated or upset, but you are trying to be positive or pleasant on the outside. On the other hand, deep acting is trying to change your feelings and aligning your emotions with how you should interact with others. Gabriel said that they conducted their study to know whether people use emotion regulation strategies when interacting with their coworkers, why they do it even if there is no formal rule at work requiring them to fake their emotions, and what benefits they receive out of such an effort if any.

Four Types of People at Work in Terms of Emotion Regulation

The result shows four types of people in terms of emotion regulation at work. The first type refers to non-actors. These are people who engage in negligible levels. The second type is the low actors. They display slightly higher deep and surface acting. Third, there are deep actors: the people who exhibit a low level of surface acting but the highest level of deep acting. Lastly, the regulators are people who display a high level of both deep and surface acting.

Non-actors emerge as the smallest group in the study while the other three groups are of the same size. The authors also identified two other drivers for why people engage in emotion regulation: impression management and prosocial motives.

Impression management motives are considered strategic. This includes putting on a happy face or looking good in front of supervisors and colleagues. Prosocial motives, on the other hand, consist of wanting to cultivate positive relationships in the workplace. The researchers found out that most emotion regulators were driven by motives of impression management. Deep actors though choose to regulate their emotions so they can establish a positive work relationship instead of just gaining access to resources.

A total of 2,500 full-time employees took part in the study and they adopted a person-centered approach in determining the four different profiles of emotion regulation.

Feeling the Emotion or Faking It?

Gabriel and colleagues said that the main takeaway for their study is that deep actors or the people who want to foster positive relationships with their coworkers align their emotions for prosocial motives and to reap benefits. These benefits include receiving a higher level of support from their coworkers, like in their workloads or by giving advice.  In the same way, deep actors reported a higher level of trust and progress in their work compared to the three groups. The data on wellbeing moreover shows that mixing high levels of deep acting and surface acting will result in mental and physical strain. Regulators suffer because they feel emotionally inauthentic and exhausted at work.

The authors spoke to managers during their study and some of them gave less emphasis on the role of emotions in the workplace. Gabriel said via medical platform Medical Xpress that the “fake it until you make it” maxim is like a survival tactic if used at work. You plaster a smile just to easily get out of an interaction. The effect may be helpful in the short run but not for the long term. This is because it will undermine the efforts to improve your relationships with your coworkers and your health as well. “Let’s be nice to each other,” the lead author suggests so that more people will feel better in the workplace and it will result in better work performance. Their social relationships with others will likewise improve.

Universal Emotional Expressions

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., author of the book The Silent Language of Leaders, has also shared how smiles are usually used as a polite response to cover emotions but it can be quite hard to produce a real smile. A genuine smile that expresses happiness and pleasure is one that crinkles the corners of the eyes and also lights up the face. Goman's advice is to always be as candid and transparent as possible to reflect emotional openness. Goman was not a part of the recent study mentioned.

The universal emotional expressions that are identical in different cultures are joy, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and contempt. Whenever any of these emotional expressions are felt strongly, their display through body language can also be intense and may last for up to four seconds. Even micro-expressions, such as facial displays that can last for less than one-fifth of a second, likewise offer a glimpse of the person’s true emotional state.

Workplace Conflict: Statistics and Its Cost

Dallas-based alternative dispute resolution expert Robyn Short shared that American employees spend about 2.1 hours per week involved with conflict. This amounts to nearly US$359 billion of paid hours. This equates to 385 million working days lost each year because of workplace conflict. Statistics also show that 34% of workplace conflict happens among the front-line employees, 25% of employees have seen conflict result in absence or sickness, 9% have witnessed how conflict can result in the failure of a project, 34% of conflict is caused by stress in the workplace, and 70% believe that managing conflict at work is an important leadership skill.

It’s not easy to hide your feelings as most emotional displays are impossible to eliminate. Instead of faking or concealing emotions at work, it will still result in tension that even your body can feel. Managers should have the ability to effectively manage it and bring a positive resolution.