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Express to Impress


by Abby Welsh, SIOP Intern

Research Finds Corporate Employees May Fake Emotions During Meetings to Make Their Boss Happy

We’ve all been to our fair share of work meetings, both good and bad, but research by Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of I-O psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, can pinpoint some of the reasons why many of us feel that meetings are a burden rather than a blessing.

After looking at the research being done in the I-O psychology field, Allen realized there was not enough research on workplace meetings. In fact, he said he only came across around 118 studies that specifically focus on meetings, which is a small number compared to many other I-O fields. However, most of us spend much of our working lives in meetings, suggesting a research gap.

Because meetings are often an affectively laden experience, Allen began to wonder about the extent to which people engage in emotional labor in meetings. Together with Jane Shumski Thomas, a graduate student of organizational science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Steven G. Rogelberg, a professor and director of organizational science at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and John Kello, a professor at Davidson College, he researched what happens behind closed doors, especially concerning the interaction between bosses and employees in organizations.

"Our research suggests that people who participate in meetings often fake positive emotions in front of their boss, perhaps because they don’t want to make them mad. This emotional labor can cause them to feel drained or burned out", Allen explains.

“If someone is being paid to go to a meeting, that brings in the possibility of emotional labor, which affects employees in multiple ways,” he adds. “We wanted to see the side effects of emotion on employees’ attitudes before, during and after work meetings.”

The researchers recruited respondents using Mechanical Turk, an online participant pool that is increasingly used by social sciences researchers, and found respondents who considered themselves full-time employees and attended at least one meeting per week. They selected 150 participants, both employees and managers, who expressed interest in the study (i.e., clicked on the HIT in Mturk). They collected demographic information by asking participants to report on meeting size and on individual levels of positive and negative affectivity.

“This is where it got interesting,” Allen says. “Our results showed that positional power over someone plays a role in emotional labor and in whether or not employees hide their true feelings in meetings.”

Positional power is a form of legitimate power and stems from the existence of anyone who has a higher job position than someone else. For example, a boss has positional power over his or her employees.

The participants were asked to rate their most recent meeting in an effort to document their feelings. The results showed participants appear to engage in emotional labor, in terms of regulating their emotions in harmful ways, in response to positional power present in the meeting. Because of positional power, they learned to hide their authentic feelings during a meeting, expressed what they deem to be the appropriate emotions for the situation, and felt drained afterwards, Allen adds.

“Regardless of the situation, if someone is surrounded by people who have more power than them in a meeting, they are more likely to fake their emotions, perhaps in order to please the higher power individuals,” Allen says. “If someone’s boss’s boss is present in a meeting, they could hide their true feelings to impress them in hopes of a raise or promotion. Although this sounds quite positive, the psychological costs of emotional labor (e.g. emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, etc.) may outweigh the benefits.”

Allen points out that previous research has focused on two main emotional labor strategies used by employees: surface acting and deep acting. Surface acting occurs when someone fakes the appropriate emotion for the situation (e.g., plastering on a “fake” smile), but is inwardly feeling the opposite, while deep acting means literally changing ones’ actual feelings to what is appropriate for the situation.

“Research consistently shows that surface acting is connected to negative employee outcomes such as burnout, while deep acting is not,” Allen explained. “Specifically, surface acting may harm someone in a more negative way because of the dissonance experienced when expressing an emotion one is not actually feeling. It’s inauthentic to the self.”

While Allen and his collogues are still looking into this research, he proposes that bosses may be less aware of their employee’s actual feelings because they choose to hide them during a time (i.e. meetings) when they should be able to express them.

“When people who lead meetings are asked about how the meeting went (this is often the boss), they often report their meeting as effective and great. These subjective evaluations might indicate that they may not have realized their employees were faking the appropriate emotion and were likely less engaged in the meeting because of it,” he said. “There are usually many ways to improve an idea or proposal furthered during a meeting. However, when employees are using their cognitive resources to fake emotions they are less likely to have the energy left to engage and share their own ideas,” Allen explains.

Meetings are not only one of the most important ways for an organization to communicate, but they are also an effective way of getting work done, so Allen encourages meeting leaders to understand the importance of working together during this time and making everyone feel included.

“Meeting leaders should have an agenda. Everyone knows this, but we still don’t do it,” Allen says. “Not only will this keep meetings organized, but it can help when others pitch ideas.”

Allen also explains how ensuring that the meeting is relevant to attendees makes it more likely they will engage in the meeting and feel engaged later in their work. Meetings are relevant when they align, at some level, with the goals of the organization and the goals of the meeting attendees. In this way, the meeting is more likely to involve the skills the employees literally bring to the table.

“Unfortunately, there are still those meetings that everyone have to attend that seem less relevant to employees. Making as many meetings relevant as possible and eliminating non-relevant meetings can help minimize the drudgery of meetings in general and help people feel as though they are accomplishing important work-related tasks in their meetings.”

Time courtesy is also something Allen stresses when meetings are scheduled. Starting and ending meetings on time as well as scheduling them a few days in advance can allow employees to reschedule their day so they can attend accordingly.

“But don’t hold them at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon,” Allen suggests.

Team meetings are supposed to give members the opportunity to come together and determine team goals, share ideas and thoughts, and make plans for achievement and who will do what. This study suggests that we keep the demands for emotional labor in those meetings in mind, as they may limit the accomplishment of the true aims of the meetings employees attend.

“I want others to broaden the domain of emotional labor because it’s in contexts other than just with customers,” he added. “I hope this will help I-O psychologists begin to understand why employees are drained and burned out after meetings, perhaps from faking emotions, and investigate ways to reduce the bad experiences employees continue to have in their workplace meetings.”