It is likely that you experience a variety of negative emotions every day – from waking up on the wrong side of the bed, feeling frustrated during your commute, to being bothered by the pile of emails that awaits you at work. 

You probably don’t express all those emotions once you get to work. After all, there are implicit norms for treating those around you with respect and courtesy, and you don’t want to create the impression that you’re constantly frustrated or irritated with them. You may also have heard about the benefits of maintaining a more optimistic outlook.

But is there really an advantage to being positive around your colleagues? What are the most successful ways to do it? To answer these questions, a survey of more than 2 500 full-time employees in various industries ranging from finance to healthcare to education was undertaken. The research will soon be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The findings suggested that positivity has some benefits. 

Previous research has shown that that emotional regulation, often referred to as “emotional labour”, is particularly pervasive in certain sectors of the workforce such as customer service, where there are explicit norms to engage in “service with a smile”. But the research was instead focused on interactions with colleagues.

Surface acting and deep acting

Respondents were asked to rate the extent to which they regulated their emotions with co-workers using two emotion regulation strategies, namely “surface acting” and “deep acting”. They were also asked about the benefits of engaging in these strategies towards their co-workers.

When you feel one emotion but try to express another, you’re surface acting. Imagine you arrive at work frustrated after a bad commute. You might fake a smile to a colleague while you’re grabbing a morning cup of coffee although you’re still not feeling particularly positive.

When you’re deep you try to change how you feel internally hoping that you can genuinely show more positive emotions. After your frustrating commute, you might reappraise what’s good about your day and what you like about your work to help you put on a smile. For example, “I feel grateful to have made it here on time and am excited to see my team.”
The results indicated that people who engaged in high amounts of deep acting paired with low amounts of surface acting reaped the greatest benefits. These people felt better at work, reporting lower levels of fatigue. 

They also reported productivity-related benefits such as receiving more help from their co-workers, both personal help (for example, having someone listen to their problems) and task help (having added assistance when workloads were too much). Colleagues seem to notice their efforts to be positive and reward them materially. Because of the help they received, deep actors also reported improved progress on their work goals and higher levels of trust with their co-workers.

What about surface actors? Interestingly, the study didn’t reveal a set of people who relied more on surface acting than deep acting. That may be because people interact with their co-workers fairly regularly, which would mean they would have to be faking a lot of the time. 

A group of people who showed both high levels of surface acting and high levels of deep acting, a group we called “regulators”, was found. Although they were deep acting, those people had a less rosy experience. In addition to feeling burnt out (possibly because they were not being genuine) and more inauthentic (likely because of the surface acting), they reported receiving less support from the people they worked with.

Why put on a smile?

We also wanted to understand why employees choose to be positive with their co-workers to begin with, given that there are no formal rules dictating that they do so. Did it have something to do with their interpersonal relationships or with their work ambitions?

It was found that the underlying reason was different depending on how the individual chose to manage their emotions. Deep actors were more likely to say that they were being positive for pro-social reasons because they liked their co-workers and valued their relationships with them. 
Regulators, on the other hand, tended to control their emotions for impression management to avoid looking bad or to try to get ahead at work. It is perhaps unsurprising that deep actors’ colleagues were more willing to offer help and support.

Based on the results, it is clear that being positive through genuine attempts to feel better offers more benefits compared to simply faking your emotions. 
The next time you feel a bad mood coming, take a step back and remember that having high-quality connections with your co-workers can be valuable to you and create a better work environment. Hopefully, that should help you break a true smile.

This article first appeared in Harvard Business Review.

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