Can Fake News Mislead Managers?

By Chris Ihrig

Good managers use a combination of gut instinct and factual information to lead their organizations. For more than a century, scientists have worked to find answers that tell us the best ways to manage workers. That body of work informs contemporary management strategies that help us be the best possible leaders we can be.

Researchers spend entire careers attempting to understand the nuances of specific behaviors. Their work creates well-defined terms based on work that studied and examined the terms from multiple angles in a variety of environments including schools, industry, military, medical, and business applications.

These terms span the spectrum of human behavior at work, from resilience to burnout, from motivation to lack of engagement, and from work satisfaction to passion and purpose.

Supporting that research are well-defined terms that are not as well-known such as introjected motivation, emotional labor, and paralanguage. Terms that are not well-known are susceptible to being hijacked by pop culture where they are given meanings that are not supported by a body of research. When this happens, managers who don’t understand the evidence-based meaning of the term can miss important concepts that affect the quality of their leadership because they think they know something that they don’t know.

Emotional Labor and Fake News

Emotional labor is well-defined in sociology and management research.

Emotional labor refers to the process by which workers are expected to manage their feelings in accordance with organizationally defined rules and guidelines.”

Recently, in pop culture, emotional labor has been portrayed as unpaid work women do in the home and at work, such as the dishes, vacuuming, and making sure co-workers are recognized on their birthday.

What’s the Problem?

Imagine a young manager who is eager to do well. She reads these pop-culture depictions of emotional labor and, wanting to do her best, she makes sure tasks like remembering employee birthdays are shared evenly among employees instead of being assigned just to women. While that’s a good step, it leaves her in the dark about what emotional labor is and how it affects her employee’s morale. Because she thinks she understands emotional labor and believes it relates to assigning work based on gender, she completely overlooks the essence of what emotional labor is and fails to manage the costs of requiring employees to engage in emotional labor.

Believing We Know When We Don’t Know

When we believe we know something that we have misunderstood, it is a troublesome type of unknown. When we believe we know and our knowledge is inadequate or inaccurate, opportunities to learn more are not pursued because we think we already know.

We can misinterpret related information. For example, this young manager believes her understanding of emotional labor is a known known. When we believe we know

something, our brain will interpret new information as if our inaccurate belief is true.

Imagine that the young manager who believes emotional labor refers to maintaining group morale by making sure tasks like birthdays are remembered are not assigned based on gender. She knows she has taken steps to assign such tasks equally among employees by putting employees in charge of the celebration the month after their birthday. She has thought about ways to ensure that any task requiring what she believes is emotional labor is equally divided. When she reads this excerpt from a journal article titled, Emotional Labor and Burnout: A Review of the Literature, she pats herself on the back, confident that her employees aren’t stressed by emotional labor.

“Job stress is now a much-discussed topic and has drawn the focus of popular media. It can lead to negative physiological, psychological, and behavioral responses among employees. With the expansion of service industries, emotional labor has emerged as a new job stressor.”

Management Missteps

Meanwhile, she implements policies that require more emotional labor from her employees and can’t figure out why morale is declining because she doesn’t recognize that requiring employees to smile at customers on demand and use a cheerful tone of voice is emotional labor.

As leaders, making sure our managers aren’t being misled by fake news about the nature of emotional labor can go a long way to helping them achieve their employee engagement goals. This doesn’t mean that unequal distribution of labor based on gender at work or at home isn’t an issue that should be addressed. The conversation isn’t about that. The conversation is about the definition of emotional labor based on a body of research built over six decades.  

We can take the conversation beyond the definition and consider innovations. Would you rather have a customer service representative be cheerful when they’re worried about their grandparent in ICU or do you prefer they be authentic and do their job?

Is It Time to Try Authenticity?

We pick up on inauthenticity on a variety of levels and we don’t like people who aren’t authentic as much as we like those who are. I’d prefer authenticity. It’s more human. It allows for connection. What would a culture that allowed an employee to express the fact that they aren’t happy instead of making them smile inanely when they are going through something look like?

Which customer service representative would you rate higher? The one who sounds cheerful but there’s an edge to it, as if it is forced or the one who isn’t cheerful and shares a reason. “I’m sorry for not being my cheerful self today. I’m worried about my dog. She’s with the vet and there’s nothing more I can do, so how can I help you?” As long as the employee’s desire to provide the service I need is authentic, I would prefer the authentic persona.  

Being authentic is less stressful for the employee, too. Adding stress from emotional labor on top of the load a stressed employee is already carrying will not improve their work performance. I think its time to give authenticity a try.