Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild (UC Berkeley) introduced emotional labor in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling: "This labor requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others . . . This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality” (1983/2012, p. 7).
Physical labor, mental labor, and emotional labor are characteristics of jobs. Emotional labor is highest in service jobs. The more interactions an employee has directly with customers, the greater the emotional labor. Hochschild used an example of flight attendants being told to smile. Some attendants will fully adopt the flight attendant role, of which smiling is expected. Smiling will just be part of who they are on the job – and how they feel, an example of “deep acting.” Other attendants will fake a smile, doing so because it is a job expectation, regardless of how they feel, an example of “surface acting.” For those who tend to be happy and naturally smile a lot, it may be just a good person-job match, no need for acting. Even so there will be times that interacting with a customer will be trying even for the best of us. Managing emotions in those cases can be difficult, more so for some than others.
For two decades industrial/organizational psychologist Alicia Grandey (Pennsylvania State University) has been a leader in trying to understand emotional labor and its consequences. Why care about emotional labor? Positive affective interactions with customers are associated with (1) positive perceptions of service quality, (2) positive recommendations to others, and (3) intent to return. Grandey (2003) found deep acting associated with more positive customer interactions whereas surface acting was associated with more stress and a greater likelihood of “breaking character with customers.” She provides a good introduction to emotional labor at this website.
In 1999 Robin Leidner, sociologist (University of Pennsylvania), wrote about emotional labor of “low-to-middle level frontline workers” and addressed ways employers try to manage the quality of employee-customer interactions. Among these were “efforts to regulate the feelings and actions of those who work with the public through detailed pre-specification of conduct”, standardization of speech scripts and body language, and uniforms or appearance standards. These may vary from simple to substantial.
1. Customer service can be tough on those providing the service. The unpleasant customer, the irate customer, the customer who cannot be satisfied. For some just the volume of interacting, regardless of quality, can be draining. There are clearly large individual differences in our abilities to manage our emotions and do so in healthy ways. I reluctantly admit that although I have taught Customer Service, I was not aware of the literature on emotional labor. Using the concept as discussed here, I see much room for growth in emotional labor research that could benefit employees and employers.
2. Customer service can be tough for the customer. You can fill in your own examples here. My guess is we have all had a bad experience as customers. How did you handle it? How did the front-line employee handle it? Did you provide feedback to the organization? How? Sometimes it is hard to be accepting and act graciously respecting the other person – but if we could, perhaps the emotional toll of difficult interactive experiences would be less.
3. Organizations will vary in how much they care about the quality of their service. If people are going to use the service regardless, they may not care. But for most, especially small businesses, the quality of their employee interactions can be the key to success or failure. A bad hire, a bad attitude can hurt a business. Likewise, failure to support your frontline employees, including time to decompress if needed, can affect your culture, and your success.
4. Emotional labor is a complex concept affected by many factors, many of which have yet to be researched. My guess is that factors such as type of industry, type of service, and individual differences affect the degree of emotional labor and associated outcomes. This would seem to be a good area for business leaders and academic researchers to partner to advance our understanding of emotional labor.
Grandey, A. A. (2003). When “the show must go on”: Surface acting and deep acting as determinants of emotional exhaustion and peer-rated service delivery. Academy of Management Journal, 46(1), 86-96.
Hochschild, A. R. (2012). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley CA: University of California Press. (Originally published, 1983)
Leidner, R. (1999). Emotional labor in service work. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 561(1), 81-95.
Image,"Person Giving Fruit to Another", by Erik Scheel. Obtained from https://www.pexels.com/photo/apple-business-fruit-local-95425/
© John Ballard, PhD, 2020. All rights reserved.
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