Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 303
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Emotional Regulation on the Job

New research explores the need to control emotions on the job and the costs of doing so.

Pity the poor waitress as she waits on the Regus family. It�s the spoiled 9-year old that causes all the trouble.

�But I wanted the jumbo shrimp, can�t you get anything right?�

�Now Johnny, I�m sure the young lady meant no harm,� cooed Mrs. Regus. �She�ll be right back with your special treat, dear.�

�And make it quick,� added Johnny.

�But we really don�t have any bigger shrimp that these,� replied the waitress. �I told you we were out of the jumbo size.�

�And I remember telling you to get some,� interrupted Mr. Regus. �Get your manager out here. I�ll be having a word with him,� he snapped.

Inwardly, this waitress was boiling mad as she left table 4. She wanted to stuff those shrimp down the little brat�s throat and hoped there would be some left over for the parents. But her words and her actions reflected the courteous decorum of a proper waitress, and that�s exactly what her supervisor has told her he wants.

This waitress is regulating her emotions. She�s faking positive emotions and hiding negative emotions, and she can be excused if her thoughts turn to other jobs she might prefer, and if her blood pressure goes up a bit.

Joyce Bono, from the University of Minnesota, is interested in workplace emotions, and she recently completed a study examining 1) the experience of emotion, 2) the regulation of emotion, and 3) the role supervisors play. Some of her findings may cause us some concern.

Professor Bono studied 57 health care workers in a large organization who were mostly women and mostly white. A majority of them worked in the billing office, but some worked in administration in non-management positions, and the rest were in family practice clinics. Hiding negative emotions and faking positive emotions were not as common for these women as they are for waitresses, but Bono was able to measure negative effects when they did occur.

Bono armed the women with personal data assistants (PDAs). These were electronic devices that the women carried with them. Four times a day, for two weeks, Bono sent a signal to the PDAs. Within fifteen minutes of receiving a signal, the women answered questions about their actions and emotions at that moment. Whenever the women reported hiding negative emotions or faking positive emotions, they also reported decreased job satisfaction and increased stress. The negative impact on job satisfaction disappeared by the next PDA signal two hours later, but the negative impact on stress took longer to disappear, at least four hours, sometimes longer.

Bono also took measurements of the women�s supervisors. She was looking for leadership actions that related to the emotions the women were experiencing. When she combined all her data, she found several important patterns.

Some of the supervisors were able to provide leadership behaviors that helped offset some of the negative effects of regulating emotions. Bono labeled these behaviors as transformational. Women who worked for these leaders reported significantly more positive emotions throughout the day in all kinds of situations, and these positive emotions carried over into customer service encounters. They were more positive with customers and provided better service. Their job satisfaction was not adversely affected by emotional regulation, but unfortunately, their stress levels weren�t helped.

Transformational leaders are emotionally literate, meaning that these supervisors could speak about emotion on the job in a way the women could understand. This changed the way the women thought about emotional events. They could understand how regulating their emotions contributed to the goals of the organization. It also helped them identify with the organization and see themselves as an important part of it.

Transformational leaders also model regulating emotions. They provide real-life demonstrations. Employees get to see supervisors controlling their words and their emotions. They can recognize the situations that prompt supervisors to regulate their emotions, and employees can recognize the benefits that accrue when emotions are regulated. This modeling helps employees accept emotional regulation as part of the job.

Finally, Bono also found a connection with social support. Supervisors who were sensitive to and supportive of the individual needs of their employees were able to help employees cope with the strain of emotional regulation.

There was one finding, however, that troubled Professor Bono. Stress levels were stubbornly resistant. Nothing Bono found helped people relieve their stress. She had been hopeful that she could find something supervisors could do to help relieve the stress caused by regulating one�s emotions. She could not.

Bono concluded that if supervisors are to help relieve stress, then they must do it by reducing the need to regulate emotions on the job, and that�s a tall order for any supervisor.

Reference: Bono, Joyce, Hannah Foldes, Gregory Vinson, and John Muros (2007) Workplace Emotions: The Role of Supervision and Leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(5), 1357-1367.

© Management Resources

Back to home page