Why Faking Enthusiasm Is The Latest Job Requirement

Increasingly, companies want loving the job to be part of the job (though they're less eager to pay for it). But when our required professional persona is at odds with our selves, we all suffer. Is there a solution?

"Important to smile. Don't forget smile."

Sooner or later, most jobs require us to exhibit some emotion that we don't necessarily feel. Flight attendants and waiters are supposed to smile when they hand you a drink; bill collectors are supposed to scare you into coming across with the cash. Nurses and preschool teachers are supposed to be comforting, even loving. When your job requires playing a part, though, it's hard to figure out where you begin and your job ends. The experience can be alienating, even dehumanizing.

Award-winning UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her book The Managed Heart, coined the term "emotional labor" to describe the curious situation where "seeming to love the job becomes part of the job."

This concept has been in the air lately. Josh Eidelson wrote in The Nation about D.C.-area Starbucks baristas exhorted to support a corporate pro-austerity campaign by physically writing a slogan on cups. "CEOs hawking 'shared sacrifice' are a dime a dozen," Eidelson noted. "A working-class seal of approval is much more valuable, even if—like so much in the American workplace—it’s coerced."

Timothy Noah wrote in The New Republic about how Pret A Manger requires its employees to master "Pret behaviors," such as "has presence," "creates a sense of fun," and "is happy to be themself." Yes—in order to sell you a bacon sandwich, employees must be fully self-actualized. And the amount that they touch fellow-employees is considered to be a positive indicator of sales, not a red flag for sexual-harassment lawsuits.

Usually we only think of emotional labor as belonging to the low-wage service economy. In fact, economist Nancy Folbre argued in her great book The Invisible Heart that the reason that jobs like preschool teacher and social worker are so low-paid and devalued is precisely because they require so much emotional labor. If you have to love the job to do it well, the logic goes, then we don't want people to be in it for the money.

But as Hochschild wrote, "most of us have jobs that require some handling of other peoples' feelings and our own, and in that sense we are all partly flight attendants." Emotional labor exists even in the startup world, which is supposed to prize authenticity and pure technical skill. Lauren Bacon, a web developer, technology entrepreneur, and author, wrote in the Huffington Post last week about technology and "empathy work"—the unpaid, not-part-of-the-job description stuff that (usually) women do in the startup world, by, for example, bringing the team together, projecting a positive image in their spare time on social media, or reminding everyone to eat lunch.

Bacon sees women in tech companies often being marginalized to ""people" roles like HR, communications, project management, admin, and user experience. "One could almost—if one were feeling cheeky—rename these roles employee empathy, customer empathy, team empathy, user empathy, and boss empathy: all of them require deep skills in emotional intelligence, verbal and written communications, and putting oneself in the shoes of others," she says. All this work is crucial to a company's success, but valued at a lower level than the hard-core coding.

Is there any way to make peace with the emotional heavy lifting that our jobs may require? Bacon suggests that employers and job candidates do a better job of talking about and adequately valuing people skills and not offloading all the emotional labor to a few people. For individuals, choosing a job that's a good fit for your natural temperament is important. But so is spending enough time away from work to find out how you really feel.

[Image: Flickr user Darwin Bell]

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90 Comments

  • John Levis

    This is what it's like to wait on tables... How far do we go to sell our Selves out? How much of a lie do we all what to be living? I don't want a big fake over enthusiastic attitude by the waiter when I'm dining out. I'd rather have someone who comes across as real and honest and certainly concerned about doing a good job which is taking care of what I need to have a great dining experience. Enough with the fake nonsense.

  • Chris Reich

    The pain people feel on the job these days is palpable. Sure, people should show a proper level of enthusiasm for their work. And, until you have worked somewhere for a while, that enthusiasm has to be faked.

    What is missing from this discussion is the company's responsibility to create an environment that fosters enthusiasm. It's not the employee's responsibility to bring that emotional fuel to the workplace. The workplace needs to supply the emotional calories to do emotional work just as it supplies toner for the printers.

    Chris Reich, TeachU

  • guest

    More often than not people are looking fro MORE in life and especially in work. As a human emotion, we want to feel valued and I think sometimes this is also the value shared with start-ups or any company solidly proud in who they are. This discussion happens a lot in start-up circles because start-ups are extensions of a single person or persons and that in it self is emotional. 

    We all want to work with people who REALLY want to be there. Makes the work day easier and usually more pleasant! We want to be surrounded by people who contribute in meaningful ways. It's getting to the root of what "meaningful" is to each person as well as the organization as a whole. Companies such at shiftalliance and others are reaching out and looking at business from a new lens. The lens of meaningful business practices, and not just for the 'warm and fuzzies' but also because when we all show up with a purpose that we, ourself believes in, we will all be more productive. 

    I don't think faking the enthusiasm is right, but its a symptom. Not the problem. Find out what makes individuals excited about their work and get to making the whole bigger than it's parts. 

  • Galfromdownunder

    *chuckle* I had the opposite happen - enthusiasm happens to be my resting state, and after a recent interview (where I thought enthusiasm would be a plus) it was suggested by an insider that I should have mirrored the utterly chill, laid back persona of the interviewers. Not that I was diving in their laps and licking their faces, but perhaps that's the real key - expertly mirroring body language. And of course, knowing how to do the job well.  
    And in this case I made the "mistake" of reading this article the night before: http://adage.com/article/rance... - as another friend said, "in men it's called enthusiasm, in women it's called pushy." 

  • Peherr

    The whole concept of emotional labor makes me sick because it's corruption of the natural order.

    As human beings, we are naturally wired to enjoy our work. Positive emotions are natures rewards for 1) learning and innovating, 2) mastering the skills of our tribe, 3) achieving daily goals, and 4) working as part of a tight-knit, collaborative group.  When we don't enjoy our work, a motivational malfunction has occurred.  

    Companies that coerce emotional labor, instead of inspiring authentic passion, are deluded and unlikely to succeed because human beings come equipped with a sophisticated BS detector. Just think of all the so-called  "testimonials" on TV which fail the BS test. 

  • Janellen

    We always used to say that once you learned to fake sincerity, you could do anything. That was 40 years ago. Same thing.

  • david carlson

    Enthusiasm on the job has always been required.  You have it, you will get recognized and promoted.  You don't have it, well, then you are a lot less likely to get promoted.  And this applies at all levels professionally, across sexes.

  • Jim Bouchard

    Interesting perspective, but in nearly all the examples cited the problem is that you shouldn't be faking the appropriate emotion, you should be expressing civility...

    ...which the customer/client/co-worker deserves.

    In our "me first" culture, if you're asked to be polite and wear a smile when serving others you're somehow "faking it," particularly if you're not in the mood that day.

    When you're serving a customer or interacting with a co-worker, it's not about you...it's about the other person. The "role" you're playing is to give the other person the respect he or she deserves.

    "Emotional labor-" interesting term. Now it's "work" to present yourself in a pleasant, civil manner. It's "work" to act politely and enthusiastically to create a pleasing experience for the customer.

    "Is there any way to make peace with the emotional heavy lifting our jobs may require?"

    Ya- remember that the person it pains you so much to serve enthusiastically and politely is paying your salary. Look at it that way and maybe you'll realize that the best thing you can do for yourself is to treat the other guy with some kindness, enthusiasm and civility!

    Oh- the pain!

    Best Thoughts!
    Jim
    http://ThinkLikeaBlackBelt.org

  • Jdoran

    Bottom line...from the consumer/customer point of view, an employee's fake enthusiasm is worse than no enthusiasm. 

  • Omnivorio

    At what point do we begin placing more responsibility for an active, positive, creative culture on those most likely to make it the happen...the bosses or the owners?  This can be said about the largest corporation to a 10-person start-up.  Large companies spend thousands on employee engagement programs.  Then use them as a tool to measure whether you are enthused enough.  I understand Dave's POV but see it a different way.  If an organization hires you, they hire you for not only what you know but what you can do in the future.  It is up to to top management to create an environment for you to succeed in that endeavor.  If they do not or even begin to undermine your attempts (often the case), Dave says walk or never take the job.  I say take the battle to them.  In as professional way as you can, challenge them on it.  It is time we begin to demand better leadership.  If the person is a good manager, you may change the game.  If not, you were gonna walk anyway.  Peter Drucker once wrote, "90% of what we call management is making it difficult for people to get things done."  Hail and Amen!  Be positive.  Make your success happen.

  • Kymberlaine Banks

    at the most basic level you don't have to fake enthusiasm if the business is at all interested in creating an environment in which you can actually BE enthusiastic

  • Linda Kleineberg

    Real employee engagement comes when you give people the tools, freedom and encouragement to implement their ideas...  trying to engage an employee in work they don't like and can't change is an exercise in futility. 

    At VIBCO (http://www.vibco.com) we have invested a tremendous amount of time and resources into building a culture of improvement that is focused on the customer... We've had full day "cultural kaizen" events where we have examined our internal customer relationships, we have an internal mantra that keeps improvement focused on our external customers... we gauge whether or not to do improvement projects based on how they add value to the customer... 

    I actually love my job because I know who I come to work each day to support... and it's not the guy at the helm of the company (though I respect him a great deal) ... I come to work each day for my customer... the person who actually pays my salary.

  • Alex Hankewicz

    Hi I'm Alex and I will be your waiter ooops your Supply Chain Analyst today. Would you like an extra excel report with your distribution report.

  • Britney Gulledge

    People want to work with amiable people. Even in a job position that you love, there will be tasks that you dislike, but it is you demeanor that is important. A negative energy and  infiltrate a whole department and make work a drag for everyone. In a sense, I agree because faking enthusiasm is great for the sanity of everyone around you. 

  • Matthew Loxton

    "Is there any way to make peace with the emotional heavy lifting that our jobs may require?"

    Yes, unless the job actually does require emotional labour, tell them to stuff it and then remind them that staff are there to work and provide expertise and skills, not be their BFF or their emotional cheerleader.

  • Social Gratitude

    Everyone has hurdles and barriers as you discussed here... this is 2013 and perhaps it's time ALL let go of the sighs and moans...  Where's the attitude of gratitude for having the opportunity to be present and employ your talents in meaningful ways?

    I'm not a woman, but I too face(d) challenges, ranging from "no degree" to a young face; also I work many days from my home office, I ge my children up, showered, fed breakfast, ready for/and on the bus...  I chose that because of my love for them, and despite the additional workload, and then enter my day (which also has unique challenges) with enthusiasm and appreciation for the experience itself.  Afterall, it's the intangible, the sights, smells, emtions, sounds, and vivid memories of such when all is past that really count, that really give us what we're after - validation, empowerment, happiness.

    Men, Women, Black, White, Asian, Caucasian, we all face hurdles, but hurdles to some, are not burdens, but rather, OPPORTUNITIES to JUMP : )  And a Jump is not only a great deal more progress than a step, but it's affording us with an elevated perspective to land and benefit from!

    To me, life and all within it, is all a matter of mind, of perspective and perception;  Perspective is choice, always afforded to us is the choice to CHOOSE a perspective, or allow the constellation of detail which has formed our life to date to automagically provide the prospective lense, it's often flawed;  Perception, is a gift, we develope, tune, and enhance, the better our gift of perception, the more robust and dynamic is our available choice of perspectives : )

    You must choose first a thought to believe in order to birth and experience an emotion, so being that you may freely choose, will you choose to see hurdles, or will you choose to see opportunities?

  • Social Gratitude

    You know, this is not a present issue for me and my company.  I can absolutely indedify however with the article and the truth within it.  

    Now, aside from the countless hurdles and variables involved in the hiring process, what gives us AND those we select to become a part of our organization such a success, is the philosophy: "Only do what you truly love to do!".  Of course this doesn't work for all.  Anytime I'm considering someone or interviewing, I always ask first thing: "What do you LOVE to do?"...  I then scan my mind to say, is there any place within our company that could benefit from giving this person the opportunity to simply do what the love? If it's a yes, I discuss what I am able to offer, and what I would like to gain from the offering; if it's a no, I validate them on their passions, but simply do not make any offerings permanent or temporary.  

    You see, I don't let the availability of the person become the cause of a hire or partnering, but rather, allow the passions of available and potentially available persons to be that which I'm able to use now or am not.  This leaves an environment where everyone literally LOVES the role they play and the progress they contribute is organically and perpetually passionate.

  • CDSTO

    Enthusiasm or a cheerfult attitude comes from finding the good that is already there, in every situation. If someone wants to find something positive they can. The problem with most of us is we don't want to. Enthusiasm doesn't fall on you. It is one of the greatest challenges in life to learn how to be excited about what you are doing every day. The best things in life are free but they don't come easy.