Latest From the Lab: A Danger Sign You May be Overlooking – Employees Faking Happiness at Work

A diverse group of office employees hold up a mask, representing the concept of socio-emotional masking. This is the featured image for a research report from the NeuroLeadership Institute.

Authored by

NLI Staff
Decades of research show that feigning positive emotions at work can have a positive impact on a person's career aspirations. But beneath the veneer of positivity, what dangers lurk for organizations who only see what's on the surface for their employees?

In this recurring series, we bring you the latest research on a subject that’s top of mind in the workplace today. 

For decades, we’ve been told to check our emotions at the door, so we can smile and say we’re doing fine when our coworkers and managers ask us how we are. Research has shown if you want to succeed at work, negative emotions should be expressed less intensely than they are actually felt, or not expressed at all in the workplace. Indeed, a recent study demonstrated that feigning happiness in the workplace, even in a virtual work environment, increases one’s chances of being hired, promoted and trusted. On the surface, this approach makes sense: this kind of emotional misrepresentation shows high levels of self-control and resilience, and in a competitive workplace, these qualities may help you get ahead. 

But recent research indicates that masking emotions may not only decrease your productivity. It may also derail organizational change initiatives, because emotional-regulation strategies are connected with our capacity for growth and organizational success. While a consistent smile provides the appearance of self-control and resilience, research suggests the opposite–that masking one’s emotions is actually reflective of poor emotion regulation, or the ability to manage emotions effectively. In fact, work by James Gross, one of the preeminent scholars on emotional regulation, showed that suppressing negative emotions cannot diminish the activity of our emotional brain circuitry, therefore making the negative emotional experience even worse. 

Masking emotions also reflects a fixed mindset because it diminishes one’s opportunity to develop emotional regulation abilities. This is a common occurrence in fixed mindset cultures, where people present themselves as talented and capable, hiding any sign of shortcomings. However, when we hide behaviors that we believe will be interpreted as shortcomings, we cut ourselves off from opportunities to develop these skills, including our ability to regulate our emotions. Research has shown having such a mindset can limit performance

When organizations have a fixed mindset culture, mistakes or imperfections are viewed as weaknesses, and success of employees is evaluated in reference to others, not in regard to an individual’s own professional development. As a result, employees may interpret their own emotional vulnerability as a weakness, which can lead to them to withdraw and potentially diminish their ability to be a productive employee. 

On the other hand, when an organizational culture encourages employees to express their real emotions at work, employees can have a bad day, without fearing a backlash. This type of workplace models a growth mindset, supported by a psychologically-safe environment. Research has found this kind of environment supports safety in mistakes and authentic expressions. Developing healthy emotional regulation skills is one element of a growth mindset. 

Of course, we’re not advocating for impulsive emotional outbursts in the workplace. Extreme emotional expression can, in fact, lead to a number of pitfalls, such as interferences with memory and focus. Extreme distress aside, if your authentic self is experiencing emotional discomfort, being able to apply healthy emotional regulation, such as acknowledging or labeling this emotion or speaking to a trusted colleague about how you’re feeling, can clear these emotional distractions, and allow you to refocus. 

What’s more, authenticity can work to strengthen work relationships, too. Recent findings highlight that correctly acknowledging another person’s emotional state in the workplace can help to increase feelings of social trust and interpersonal relationships — all qualities that lead to better organizational and team performance.

We need to treat our ability to express and regulate our emotions like any other skill that can be developed. Working in a culture that discourages authentic emotional expression can impede our ability to do so, which is why it’s paramount for leaders to create a psychologically-safe environment so we don’t have to leave our emotions at the door.

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