Overcoming the Drain of Emotional Acting

“No worries!” you politely replied, when in fact, this has caused you many worries.

“Feeling good!” you forced, when in fact, you felt awful.

“We can rally!” you cheered to the team, when in fact, you knew that things didn’t look good.

Maybe you’ve done this; Carefully picking and choosing which emotions to express to whom, mindfully striking the perfect balance of collaborative, kind, and optimistic.

It’s called emotional acting. Emotional acting is a phrase coined by Wharton professor Adam Grant. It’s when you put on a persona and you fake it, in a lot of interactions, all the time.

Emotional acting is (unfortunately) very common in customer service. It’s also common in conflict-avoidant organizational cultures, with unfamiliar people, and in virtual environments.

It’s physically, intellectually, and emotionally draining.  To be clear, we all have times when we should be carefully managing our emotions, like calming ourselves after some negative feedback or trying to have a good attitude in the face of a disruptive change.

But repeatedly masking our emotions at work is exhausting and it’s not sustainable. Innovation, creativity, and engagement depend on showing up as your authentic self.

Here are three tips for lessening your emotional acting:

  1. Assess the motive for your acting. Sometimes we tell ourselves emotionally acting is a service to others. We’re nice people, who don’t want to hurt feelings. Yet what typically lies below that is our own discomfort with conflict. We’re not putting this mask on to protect other people’s feelings, we do it to protect our own.

While it may be temporarily uncomfortable to tell the truth, the long-term consequences of emotional acting are much worse. Let’s say you’re sitting in a strategy meeting. You feel like the plan being presented is not addressing the new competitive threats. You decide to keep your mouth closed as to not disrupt the perceived overall agreement in the room. Months pass, and it turns out, you were right. The strategy didn’t work. Now, you’re in for hours of uncomfortable meetings (instead of what could have been a few minutes, had you kindly expressed your reservations).

Next time you are tempted to emotionally act, ask yourself, are you not speaking up to avoid making others uncomfortable? Or are you holding your tongue to avoid making yourself uncomfortable?

  1. Start small, with people you already know. If you feel like most of your day is spent couching your emotions, make a concentrated effort to be more authentic with a select few people. Perhaps you want to be more transparent in your 1-1’s or maybe you’d like to make an authenticity effort during Monday morning team meetings.

Being specific about where you start will start to flex your muscles, make you more comfortable with stepping into uncertainty, and give you the courage to tackle bigger, higher stakes conversations with authenticity.

  1. Practice deep acting (instead of surface acting). According to Grant, a potential remedy for emotional acting is deep acting. Grant describes the difference by saying, “Instead of putting on a mask (emotional acting), you actually try to feel the emotion. That way, it comes out naturally.”

When you are tempted to emotionally act, instead of focusing on the person you’d like to take on, put your attention on the emotion you’d like to really feel. If want to appear empathetic, try to really feel it. If you want to appear optimistic, try to take your brain to a place of genuine optimism.

In deep acting, you use your mental horsepower to consciously adjust your inner thoughts (instead of using that energy to adjust your otter perception).

You don’t want to have to be a constant emotional actor at work. Instead you want to be someone who genuinely feels purpose, caring, and empathy.

Minimizing your emotional acting makes work more authentic, engaging, and impactful.