Why ‘fake it til you make it’ doesn’t work when it comes to workplace happiness
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Why ‘fake it til you make it’ doesn’t work when it comes to workplace happiness

by Freya Lucas

January 21, 2020

Researchers from the University of Arizona have found that the “fake it til you make it” adage often backfires when it is used with co-workers, and that faking a positive attitude can actually do more harm than good in a workplace setting. 


The alternative – making an effort to feel the emotions you display and deal with them in a constructive way – is far more productive. 


Associate Professor Allison Gabriel, who led the team of researchers, outlined that two types of emotional regulation were analysed in the study – surface acting and deep acting. 


“Surface acting is faking what you’re displaying to other people. Inside, you may be upset or frustrated, but on the outside, you’re trying your best to be pleasant or positive,” Associate Professor Gabriel said. “Deep acting is trying to change how you feel inside. When you’re deep acting, you’re actually trying to align how you feel with how you interact with other people.”


The study surveyed working adults in a wide variety of sectors and industries including education, manufacturing, engineering and financial services.


Researchers wanted to learn more about the choices people make in their workplace – whether they choose to engage in emotional regulation when interacting with their co-workers, why they choose to regulate their emotions if there is no formal rule requiring them to do so, and what benefits, if any, they get out of this effort.

For those working with children and young people, part of the decision making around emotional regulation efforts may centre on modeling to those in their care the skills required to centre themselves and manage big feelings. 

When it comes to regulating emotions with co-workers, Associate Professor Gabriel said, four types of people emerged from the study:

  • Non-actors, or those engaging in negligible levels of surface and deep acting;
  • Low actors, or those displaying slightly higher surface and deep acting;
  • Deep actors, or those who exhibited the highest levels of deep acting and low levels of surface acting; and,
  • Regulators, or those who displayed high levels of surface and deep acting.


In each study, non-actors made up the smallest group, with the other three groups being similar in size.


The researchers identified several drivers for engaging in emotional regulation and sorted them into two categories: prosocial and impression management. Prosocial motives include wanting to be a good co-worker and cultivating positive relationships. Impression management motives are more strategic and include gaining access to resources or looking good in front of colleagues and supervisors.


Regulators, in particular, were driven by the motive to impress management, while deep actors were significantly more likely to be motivated by prosocial concerns. Deep actors, researchers said, choose to regulate their emotions with co-workers to foster positive work relationships, as opposed to being motivated by gaining access to more resources.

The main takeaway from the research, the Associate Professor said, is that deep actors – those who are really trying to be positive with their co-workers – do so for prosocial reasons and reap significant benefits from these efforts.

Those benefits, she said, include receiving significantly higher levels of support from co-workers, such as help with workloads and offers of advice. Deep actors also reported significantly higher levels of progress on their work goals and trust in their co-workers than the other three groups.


The data also showed that mixing high levels of surface and deep acting resulted in physical and mental strain. Those who fell into the ‘regulator’ category suffered the most when their wellbeing markers were measured, including increased levels of feeling “emotionally exhausted and inauthentic at work”. 


While some managers Associate Professor Gabriel spoke to during the course of her research still believe emotions have little to do with the workplace, the study results suggest there is a benefit to displaying positive emotions during interactions at work.

Fake it til you make it, she said, is essentially a survival tactic at work.

“Maybe plastering on a smile to simply get out of an interaction is easier in the short run, but long term, it will undermine efforts to improve your health and the relationships you have at work.”


“In many ways,” she added, “it all boils down to, ‘be nice to each other.’ Not only will people feel better, but people’s performance and social relationships can also improve.”


To read the research in full, please see here. 

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