The link between fake smiles and unethical work behavior

Brent Scott, a professor at the department of management at the Eli Broad College of Business on the campus of Michigan State University, has been busy co-authoring a study with Michell C. Hong of North Dakota State University and Christopher M. Barnes of the University of Washington.

Part of the study is on smiles, but not just any smile – the disingenuous ones.

The study looked at full-time employees in public jobs that require a display of positive emotion. Think car salesperson, cashier, waiter, etc.

Survey says, faking a smile at the office could mean more than just force acting like a happy person when you really aren’t. In fact, faking it in front of clients and customers when you’re not in the mood can lead to unethical behavior toward your boss, coworkers, clients and the general public.

“They feel inauthentic … when people feel fake, they act in more unethical ways,” Scott said.

These unethical actions aren’t necessarily crimes that could put you in prison, but they are characteristics that shouldn’t be cultivated in any workplace, like dragging out work for overtime pay, exaggerating or lying, and not being upfront with customers and clients about important changes to products and services.

According to Scott, there are two primary ways workers put on that happy face. The first is called “deep acting,” where one does things that put them in a good mood, such as considering the positives of their current situation or recalling a pleasant memory.

The other technique is called “surface acting,” which is “pretty simple. It’s just faking it,” Scott said. “You’re not feeling it on the inside,” and it requires the active suppression of the actual emotion one has inside.

Studies show surface acting is just plain bad for people. It’s stressful, depleting and creates feelings of dissonance. Customers “may react adversely to it because they detect when they’re being lied to,” Scott said. “If they keep doing it over time, they may not feel like themselves because they’re always working to be someone else.”

Scott explained that avoiding surface acting is the only answer. “There are significant costs associated with it; not only unethical behavior. … So that begs the question, what else do you do?” Scott said. “(If) you can’t just be your natural self, then use deep-acting strategies,” which isn’t great but less harmful than surface acting.

To smile or not to smile, that is the question.

 It seems the answer is simple: just be yourself.



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