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Emphasizing Emotional Display Rules for Superior Performance

door Frank Walter


Customer service employees are often required to perform “service with a smile” – expressing positive feelings and suppressing negative feelings in customer interactions. Even beyond a service context, however, rules that govern appropriate displays of emotion are ubiquitous in today’s workplaces. For example, managers routinely expect employees to exhibit a friendly, helpful, and professional attitude toward colleagues and to act in line with the (often implicit) guidelines of the company’s culture.

New research by Frank Walter (University of Groningen) and Catherine Lam (City University of Hong Kong) suggests that such display rules have crucial consequences. It is important to note that employees often differ in their awareness of emotional display requirements. Whereas some employees clearly recognize existing display rules, others may miss the respective expectations. Based on a study of 245 frontline sales employees from a global fashion retailer, our research shows that these differences can have important implications for employee performance. To the extent that employees are aware of existing emotional display rules, their performance can substantially benefit. In contrast, employees’ job performance can suffer if they are oblivious of key display requirements.

The practical implications seem straight-forward. To stimulate superior performance, managers should be very clear about the emotional display rules employees need to meet. This may entail, for example, that requirements for friendly, helpful emotion expression are emphasized in employee orientation programs and that managers make a point of being a role-model for such behavior. Beyond this, companies can make appropriate emotion expression part of their reward systems, such that employees flexible rewards do not only reflect sales numbers but also incorporate an assessment of their actual service delivery (e.g., greetings to customers, friendly smiles, courteous and helpful behavior).

As is often the case, however, things are more complex. It is important to consider two crucial caveats. First, our results show that awareness of emotional display rules does not equally benefit all employees. Rather, the role of display rules critically depends on the emotions employees experience at work. Employees who are upbeat and enthusiastic, on the one hand, were shown to exhibit relatively high performance whether or not they recognize display requirements. After all, such employees can exhibit required, positive emotions just by following their natural tendencies. In this situation, it is unnecessary and inefficient for managers to strongly emphasize positive display rules. On the other hand, employees who experience strong negative emotions at work find it difficult to meet display rules that mandate expression of positive feelings, even if they are fully aware of such requirements. In this case, the discrepancy between what employees feel and what they should express is simply too large. Rather than emphasizing display rules, managers seem better advised, then, to first help employees overcome their negative emotions. Taken together, emotional display rules appear most effective for employees who do not experience strong positive or negative feelings at work. Hence, targeted and efficient interventions require that managers understand employees’ emotions and adjust their promotion of display rules accordingly.

Second, it is important to note that the positive relationship between display rule awareness and job performance (at least for some employees) is only part of the story. Previous research has demonstrated that strong emotional display requirements can have deleterious consequences for employees. If display rules crucially characterize one’s job, employees often develop the feeling that they “cannot be themselves” in the workplace. In the long-run, this diminishes well-being, promotes negative job attitudes, and even has serious implications for employees’ health (e.g., resulting in burnout). Managers therefore face a dilemma between display rules’ performance benefits and detrimental implications for employee well-being. We suggest two ways to resolve this dilemma. On the one hand, companies can deliberately create situations in which display rules are relaxed. This can include “off-stage” situations without customer contact where employees can openly discuss work experiences and “blow off steam.” This possibility may restore employees’ sense of authenticity and control over their own feelings.

On the other hand, companies may train employees’ effective emotion management. It is possible, of course, to simply “fake positive,” that is, to put on a smile toward customers and disguise one’s actual feelings. In the long-run, however, such inauthentic emotion expression is highly stressful. Employees may be better advised to use a different strategy, namely to deliberately re-evaluate stressful work situations in a more positive light. Difficult customers, for example, may be thought of as a challenge rather than a threat, potentially preventing the development of negative emotions. Research has demonstrated that such “deep acting” is less stressful than faking positive and comes over as more authentic and trustworthy. At the same time, deep acting may require considerable skill. Hence, human resource professionals may find it useful to incorporate emotion management in personnel development. A detailed description of possible training opportunities is beyond the focus of this report (but see Caruso & Salovey, 2004). Clearly, however, this type of training needs to extend beyond the classroom. Key elements should include workplace learning initiatives that enable reflection about one’s style of emotion management, mentoring and coaching programs that offer continuous feedback, and an organizational culture that allows for open discussion about emotional issues encountered in the workplace.

All in all, our research shows that clarity about emotional display rules can boost employee performance, particularly in service jobs with frequent customer contact. It is not sufficient, however, to simply emphasize such rules toward all subordinates. Rather, human resource managers as well as line supervisors should carefully consider a professional approach toward emotion management that accounts for the complexities inherent to this important area. Eventually, successful emotion management can be a key success factor that gives companies a crucial edge over their competition.

For more information about the research summarized here, please contact Frank Walter.

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