Surface Acting – it’s draining, frustrating and “disempowering”

I observe that many studies investigating “job satisfaction” utilise measures based on the Maslach Burnout Inventory.  This scale measures a number of discrete aspects that impact on job satisfaction; typically including autonomy, achievement and “emotional exhaustion” which may arise from “surface acting”.

Yet some years ago I surveyed a large staff group within a high-tech venture to ask what they wanted most from their work – the clear answer was recognition and responsibility.  Of course these employees were “empowered technical experts” – confident in their work and in their future.  Yet even here I can see that “autonomy” could code for responsibility and “achievement” would bring recognition.

(In fact back in the 1980s some software engineering books advocated “egoless programming” environments; so that groups would be more open about bugs…  however,  my own experience is that this issue was more relevant in “big company” Data Processing departments where concealment avoided retribution.  In entrepreneurial high tech environments,  I have found that most “techies” are keen to be associated with pieces of technology – and that encouraging such ownership means that they are always keen to right any problems.)

So, I understood the relevance of the autonomy and achievement measures – but what of “surface acting”?

Surface acting is when a person has to fake (or suppress) emotion or reaction to meet certain social or work rules.  Clearly a shop worker or a flight attendant may have to be very patient with a rude or demanding customer.  But where surface acting is most draining is when an employee feels unable to express their  opinions or to articulate their frustrations to colleagues or to managers – usually to avoid conflict or the risk irritating a superior (…leading to career ramifications).  In the longer term this can cause disempowerment and cynicism – and it is emotionally exhausting.

Yet, by becoming more resilient through developing mindfulness, employees can become more able to understand the “point of view” of others (e.g. of their employer or their manager).  The mindful employee will be able to  recognise that certain situations or issues may cause them to feel frustrated or disenchanted and they will become more able to control these reactions.  That’s not to say that employees shouldn’t speak up if they are unhappy or concerned – but again, to be effective, such feedback to a manager is best done in a clam and unemotional way.

So it seems that being more open, more able to empathise and building the skills to “avoid knee jerk emotional responses” really does reduce the need for surface acting; and hence can significantly improve job satisfaction.

5 thoughts on “Surface Acting – it’s draining, frustrating and “disempowering””

  1. Hmm it looks like your site ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any tips and hints for inexperienced blog writers? I’d really appreciate it.

    1. Read a lot of stuff – and see if you can put your finger a point of view that may have been missed. Good luck with your blog.

  2. An interesting dialogue is value comment. I think that you need to write extra on this matter, it might not be a taboo topic however usually persons are not enough to talk on such topics. To the next. Cheers

    1. Thanks for your note – I guess employers really need to think about how they might be sapping the positivity out of their employees by putting them into a position where they are surface acting. Openness works both ways.. but so many middle managers are short of the self confidence required to allow their staff to be open and honest. The real loser in all this is the employer who will get less for the same wage payments. Yet with a more mindful approach from both parties then it is possible to detach from any defensiveness that may arise and to examine the views to see where a solution lies.

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