Why putting on a fake smile at work is actually harming you

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It might be time to reconsider putting that fake smile on your face at work.

With employees feeling the pressure to exude positivity in the office, whether it’s toxic positivity or simply taking the fake-it-until-you-make-it mentality, new research suggests that the way we portray our emotions at work can have serious implications on our lives.

Researchers at the University of Arizona found that faking a positive attitude and being obsessed with making a good impression at work to advance in your career not only doesn’t benefit you, but it could prove to hurt you.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, was headed by Allison Gabriel from the University of Arizona and included work from Joel Koopman (Texas A&M University), Christopher Rosen (the University of Arkansas, and John Arnold and Wayne Hochwarter of Florida State University).

For the study, researchers surveyed more than 2,500 working adults across various industries including education, manufacturing, engineering, and finance. From there, they studied two types of emotion styles — deep acting and surface acting.

“Surface acting is faking what you’re displaying to other people. Inside, you may be upset or frustrated, but on the outside, you’re trying your best to be pleasant or positive,” Gabriel said. “Deep acting is trying to change how you feel inside. When you’re deep acting, you’re actually trying to align how you feel with how you interact with other people.”

By analyzing both deep and surface acting, researchers had participants sorted into four groups based on their reactions which included nonactors, low actors, deep actors, and regulators.

Here’s how the four types of people were determined, according to Gabriel:

  • Nonactors: Workers engaging in negligible levels of surface and deep acting.
  • Lowactors: Workers displaying slightly higher surface and deep acting.
  • Deep actors: Workers who exhibited the highest levels of deep acting and low levels of surfacing acting.
  • Regulators: Workers who displayed high levels of surface and deep acting.

“What we wanted to know is whether people choose to engage in emotion regulation when interacting with their co-workers, why they choose to regulate their emotions if there is no formal rule requiring them to do so, and what benefits, if any, they get out of this effort,” Gabriel said.

For each study, nonreactors were the smallest group while the other three groups were similar in size, according to researchers. They discovered that there were multiple reasons for engaging in emotional regulation, which researchers sorted into two categories: prosocial and impression management.

Prosocial management is when a worker wants to be a good coworker and create positive relationships. Impression management types have more strategic measures like gaining “access to sources” or making themselves look better in front of coworkers and their bosses.

As for the findings, the workers identified as regulators were more associated with impression management as opposed to deep actors, who were slanted closer to prosocial.

“The main takeaway is that deep actors – those who are really trying to be positive with their co-workers – do so for prosocial reasons and reap significant benefits from these efforts,” Gabriel said.

Benefits for deep actors include having higher levels of support from co-workers like managing workloads and offering advice. Deep actors were also found to have high production in order to obtain work goals more than any of the three other groups.

“I think the ‘fake it until you make it’ idea suggests a survival tactic at work,” Gabriel said. “Maybe plastering on a smile to simply get out of an interaction is easier in the short run, but long term, it will undermine efforts to improve your health and the relationships you have at work.”

Gabriel added: “In many ways, it all boils down to, ‘Let’s be nice to each other.’ Not only will people feel better, but people’s performance and social relationships can also improve.”