The authors examined the moderating role of emotional intelligence in the surface acting-strain relationship. Specifically, the authors hypothesized that higher levels of emotional intelligence were associated with a weaker relationship between surface acting and strain (i.e., depressed mood at work, somatic complaints). Results supported the hypothesized relationships, and the authors found that higher emotional intelligence attenuated the positive relationship between surface acting and depressed mood at work and somatic complaints. Implications of the results, limitations of the study, and directions for future research are discussed.
Keywords: emotional intelligence; surface acting; emotional labor
Over the past century, the United States economy evolved from a production orientation to a service orientation. With this evolution came a marked increase in the percentage of jobs requiring direct, face-to-face interactions with customers, in which interpersonal warmth and friendliness are deemed essential (Grandey, 2003). Whereas the golden rule of service with a smile does seem to help generate positive customer reactions, employees do not seem likely to always feel the emotions they need to display, due to a variety of reasons such as fatigue or unpleasant customers (Hochschild, 1983). To observe the organizational policies and emotional norms, employees invest a certain amount of emotional effort in their jobs to try to display organizationally desirable emotions. Hochschild (1983) defined this effort as emotional labor, which is the physical and mental management of one's feelings in order to express organizationally required emotions.
Hochschild (1983) presented an appealing case for the performance of emotional labor. She distinguished two types of emotional labor strategies employed by service workers to satisfy organizational requirements for emotional expression: deep acting and surface acting. Whereas in deep acting service workers try to align their inner feelings with their expressions, in surface acting, the worker simply portrays the situationally appropriate emotion to fulfill job requirements of customer service and care. Using this form of emotional labor, the service worker focuses only on emotional expression by putting on positive emotional masks without trying to actually experience the displayed emotions.
Why one may or may not surface act is one of the topics currently discussed in the literature. For example, Liu, Prati, Perrewe, and Ferris (in press) discussed the choice of emotional labor activities as dependent upon one's personal resources, finding that those with more personal resources at their disposal will be less likely to surface act. The findings of Beal, Trougakos, Weiss, and Green (2006) imply that surface acting is not the choice of individuals who experience more positive emotions than negative and those having a positive self-evaluation of his or her job role. Regardless of the reason one might or might not engage in surface acting, research demonstrates that whereas both forms of acting could have detrimental effects on employee physical and psychological health, surface acting tends to be particularly harmful. This impact appears to be primarily attributed to the disconnect between the employees' true feelings and those they must display (e.g., Abraham, 1998; Brotheridge & Grandey, 2002; Brotheridge & Lee, 2002, 2003; Erickson & Ritter, 2001; Grandey, 2003; Pugliesi, 1999; Totterdell & Holman, 2003; Zapf, Vogt, Seifert, Mertini, & Isic, 1999).
Given the detrimental effects of surface acting, it is important to examine factors that might help attenuate its negative impact. Whereas there are many situational factors, such as the service climate of the organization, that might be of relevance (cf. Liu & Yang, 2006), several researchers have proposed that individual differences also play a role (e.g., Abraham, 1998, 2000; Grandey, 2000; Lam & Kirby, 2002). For example, Abraham (1998) suggested that self-monitoring may reduce the impact of emotional dissonance resulting from surface acting. She suggested that as the ability to monitor the situational cues and to control expressive behavior based on those cues, self-monitoring might make it relatively easy for individuals to manipulate their emotional expressions in social settings. Abraham (2000) also proposed that emotional intelligence may alleviate strain resulting from emotional labor. In the present study, we focus on the moderating effect of emotional intelligence in the surface acting-strain relationships.
Emotional intelligence is one's understanding of and ability to use the symbolism of emotion through mental processing, the display of facial expressions, tone of voice, and other forms of emotional display and self-regulation in order to influence one's own emotions and the emotions of others (Bar-On, 2000; Goleman, 1995; Mayer & Salovey, 1997; Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2000; Salovey & Mayer, 1990). Individuals with high emotional intelligence are able to perceive and interpret emotions of self and others accurately and to use such emotional knowledge to facilitate thoughts and actions (Mayer & Salovey, 1997). The possession of emotional intelligence is regarded as a potentially valuable asset for organizational members, particularly in terms of the performance of emotional labor (Foo, Elfenbein, Tan, & Aik, 2004; Giardini & Frese, 2006; Johnson & Spector, 2007).
The study makes two major contributions to the literature. First, it examines emotional intelligence as a moderator, a largely underresearched relational position for the construct, especially with regard to the relationship between emotional labor efforts and outcomes (Johnson & Spector, 2007). Specifically, this study is among the first to examine the moderating role of emotional intelligence in the relationship between emotional labor and strain, and it echoes the call by many for such an investigation (e.g., Douglas, Frink, & Ferris, 2004; Grandey, 2000; Humphrey, 2006; Lam & Kirby, 2002). Second, it contributes to stress coping research and practices by examining a factor that potentially helps employees decrease, or avoid increasing, their strain. Our research provides empirical evidence that facilitates future research trying to better understand the strain-alleviating role of emotional intelligence. It also provides helpful insights for managers regarding organizational intervention programs, such as training and counseling.
Zapf, Seifert, Schmutte, Mertini, and Holz (2001) suggested that surface acting is the physical attempt to conceal the discrepancy between the emotions one presents and the emotions one actually feels. The literature suggests that this form of emotional labor is closely associated with emotional dissonance, an aversive psychological state in which one experiences a sense of discrepancy between the real self and socially presented self (Hochschild, 1983). To some extent, surface acting serves as an active work stressor for employees because in surface acting the ongoing reflection on the real versus acted self makes one recognize the discrepancy, which often results in an unfavorable moral judgment of the self (Hochschild, 1983). Perhaps this moral judgment is due in part to the veiled nature of the act. Because surface acting involves the manipulation of false impressions and the hiding or masking of true feelings, it can be considered a form of deception (cf. Leidner, 1993; O'Hair & Cody, 1994; Payne, 2008).
There are certainly positives attributed to the act of masking emotions. In most cases, the customer desires and expects a cheerful and amicable demeanor from customer service associates. Accordingly, managers promote and reward this type of representation (Constanti & Gibbs, 2005). When the employee does not genuinely feel such emotions, surface acting serves to maintain a certain level of affective service delivery and prevent possible service glitches (Spitzberg & Cupach, 1984). Regardless of possible benefits, surface acting is still a form of deception that can adversely impact the employees' psychological well-being and their relationship with the customer (if the act is perceived as insincere).
At the individual level, emotional dissonance resulting from such deceptive behaviors is considered problematic. Consistently, emotional dissonance is demonstrated as a precursor of experienced stress, burnout, and self-alienation (Abraham, 1998; Hochschild, 1983; Lewig & Dollard, 2003). Recent studies show that surface acting is associated with both psychological strain, such as depression, job tension, and emotional exhaustion, and physiological strain, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer progression (Grandey, 2000; Liu, Perrewe, Hochwarter, & Kacmar, 2004; Schaubroeck & Jones, 2000; Totterdell & Holman, 2003; Zapf et al., 1999).
We propose that emotional intelligence helps attenuate the deleterious impact of surface acting on strain. The reasons are multifold. First, emotionally intelligent service providers are better able to align their levels of emotional engagement with the emotional demands of the situation, which makes the act of surface acting less socially inappropriate and consequently, less psychologically stressful. Not all service situations require full emotional engagement of service providers. Customer …