Deadpan jobs are hard work

RICE (US) — Having a poker face at work can take its toll. Employees with jobs that require neutrality expend so much energy controlling emotions that they have less energy for other tasks.

“It takes energy to suppress emotions, so it’s not surprising that workers who must remain neutral are often more rundown or show greater levels of burnout,” says Daniel Beal, assistant professor of psychology at Rice University and study co-author.

That neutrality can be a turnoff for customers, the study shows. Customers who interacted with a neutrally expressive employee were in less-positive moods. Those customers gave lower ratings of service quality and held less-positive attitudes toward that employee’s organization.

The findings—scheduled for publication in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology—suggest that even though neutrality in such jobs is required for a number of reasons—to maintain trust, to keep a situation calm, to not influence the actions of others—it may not result in a particularly positive reaction from others.

“When an employee is positive, it transfers to the client or customer they’re working with,” Beal says. “Because of that good mood, the client or customer then would rate the organization better. But if an employee is maintaining a neutral demeanor, you don’t have those good feelings transferred. If an organization’s goal is to be unbiased, then that may trump any desire the organization has to be well-liked.”

Beal and researchers from the University of Toronto and Purdue University found employees will generally engage in higher levels of suppression in an attempt to adhere to the neutral display requirement to meet the expectations of their managers or the public.

For the study, the researchers trained participants to perform as poll workers in two different conditions. In one condition, the training emphasized being positive to provide a good impression of the organization sponsoring the survey. In the second condition, the training emphasized being neutral so as not to bias the responses of survey respondents.

Results supported the idea that neutral displays require greater emotion suppression and this greater suppression led to less persistence at the surveying task and greater avoidance of potential survey respondents.

While other research has focused on jobs that require the suppression of negative feelings, such as customer service representatives, this is the first such study to examine the jobs that require a neutral disposition and the consequences of suppressing both negative and positive emotions on the job.

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