Leading with emotional labour

“Hi Miss, could you help me with this system?”

“Hi Miss, the system is still not working. Are you even capable of doing this?”

“Hi Miss, are you expecting me to pay for this service? Who are you to even tell me what to do, bring me your manager!”

This may be a common scenario in the service line when dealing with difficult customers and I have personally encountered such instances during my part-time job whereby I feel both angry and humiliated because comments by customers can be degrading and harsh. Yet, due to the fact that it is part of my job to not only perform the tasks efficiently but handle customers effectively, I have to put on that big smile on my face and remain calm to pacify and satisfy the customers.

This is an example of the emotional labour concept that we have discussed in class. This term emotional labour has been first conceptualized by Hochschild in 1983 whereby he touched on the attribute of work that goes beyond physical or mental tasks especially for service line staff who acts as a major service touch point and has the most interaction with customers. In class, we discussed mainly about workers managing demands of emotional labour but personally I wonder if leaders of a company also have to go through such phase as they, too, have to deal with difficult situations whereby they have to display suitable emotions.

The answer is yes! Ashforth & Humphrey’s (1993) broader conceptualization of emotional labour widened scope of the term emotional labour by defining it as “ the act of displaying the appropriate emotion” and even included professions who are not only in the service line. Leaders in organisations also face difficulties when dealing with “toxic” emotions in organisations (Frost, 2004).

I chanced upon a paper with relevance to our class on the topics of leadership and emotional labour named :“ Emotional labour and leadership: A threat to authenticity?”. It was published in 2009 and sought to explore the three categories of leader emotional displays, mainly surface acting, deep acting and genuine emotions, and indicate desirable forms of displays that leads to effective leadership.

Model of leader emotional labour and authenticity

The paper provided us with a clear model representing factors that could possibly affect the way the leader may react to situations, such as the situation at hand ( “hassles and uplifts”) as well as individual differences. The model also depicts the possible outcomes that could arise from the 3 possible forms of leader’s emotional display.

Key takeaways from the paper:
1) Surface acting by a leader is negatively related to: a) the favorability of follower impressions; b) follower perceptions of leader authenticity and c) leader felt authenticity whereas deep acting and genuine emotional displays are positively related.
2) Leader emotional displays produce more favorable follower impressions when they reflect genuine emotions as opposed to deep acting, which in turn yields more favorable follower impressions than surface acting
3) Favorability of follower impressions of a leader and follower perceptions of leader authenticity are positively related to follower trust in the leader
4) Displays that produce high levels of leader felt authenticity ( e.g. genuine displays, and to a lesser extent, deep acting), yield lower levels of leader emotional dissonance and depersonalization and higher levels of personal accomplishments than displays that product lower levels of felt leader authenticity (e.g. surface acting)

The table below gives us a clear overview of the findings as well:

Leader emotional displays and outcomes

This shows us that emotional displays tend to be more desirable when consistent with display rules and genuine display of emotions seem to be the most appropriate form of emotional display out of the three options. However, personally I believe that it is not easy to consistently display genuine emotions due to situational pressures and thus leaders may choose to engage in deep acting as it is still the next best alternative to allow for trust in leader, relatively high favorable impression and perceived authenticity. Deep acting may also benefit leader’s well-being which is a fresh perspective from what we previously discussed in class.

As a potential future leader of the company, we should also try to show our most sincere and genuine side hopefully in line with display rules of positivity so that we can impact our staff in the right way as well! However in situations whereby it is hard for us to reflect truly how we feel, we should empathize with employees’ situation and engage in deep acting as workers will tend to react more positively when they see attempts from their superiors. We should try avoiding surface acting as fake emotions are easy to tell and may cause us to lose respect in the minds of our workers.

Gardner, W. L., Fischer, D., & Hunt, J. G. (2009). Emotional labor and leadership: A threat to authenticity?. The Leadership Quarterly, (20), 466-482.

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