Practical Emotional Intelligence: Emotional Labour

I must confess it is only recently that I heard of this phrase.  Emotional labour was first defined by the noted sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, as “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display.” It’s essentially putting on an act to affect the emotional state of others in a way that meets the expectations of an employer. Naturally, all employers expect their workers to obey company rules and procedures, but emotional labour goes beyond simply following the rules, as it requires individuals to alter their behaviour into something that is company-approved, and which can be very different from the general behaviour that stems from his or her personality.

Emotional labour is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of a job. More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors.

One aspect of emotional labour involves managing our emotions to meet our job expectations.  For example, retail clerks are expected to be upbeat and enthusiastic about the merchandise (and in general), even if that is not truly how they feel.  Emotional labour is the work a person does to make his or her displayed emotions match those expected for a position. Some people have more difficulty with this type of work than others, and for many people emotional labour can lead to increased stress and burnout. The most easily recognizable case of emotional labour is when a supervisor demands employees in customer service positions smile and remain pleasant at all times, even in the face of insults.

Emotional labour takes time and energy, and most certainly can have negative effects on productivity. It’s seldom part of a job description, or a resume, but emotional labour is a key part of many different types of work—paid and unpaid.  This is particularly true as our economies shift from manufacturing to service industries.  For most of us the products of our labour are largely non-physical in nature.  They are emotional — the products that result from the interaction between human beings. Indeed, we may work in the exchange of physical products, but typically the job requires you to attach emotional value to them.

There are many ways of getting around difficult emotional labour. For example, employees who must act with solemnity in their jobs will often feel genuine solemnity if they take their job seriously and truly care about the task at hand.  One of the ways around mandating that employees smile constantly is creating an environment in which employees wish to smile. Creating happy and fair work environments severely reduces emotional strain on service workers and can lead to better morale and more loyal workers.

Another approach is use a theory of temperament that allows you to both analyse the temperament needs of a job and the temperament of those people working in the job.  For example if the job requires you to friendly and enthusiastic, say for example the reception of a five-star hotel, you would seek to hire people with a high Mover component in their temperament profile.  On the other hand if you are looking for a new paymaster you want somebody with considerable Doublechecker in their temperament.  There is an ideal temperament match for every job and if you spend the time trying to match recruits to the ideal fit you will substantially reduce the necessary emotional labour required by your staff in your business.


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Chris Golis - Author


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