Leading with emotional labor
Ronald H. Humphrey, Jeffrey M. Pollack and Thomas Hawver
Department of Management, School of Business,
Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, USA
Purpose – This paper seeks to argue that leaders perform emotional labor whenever they display
emotions in an attempt to inﬂuence their subordinates’ moods and motivations.
Design/methodology/approach – This is a conceptual paper that integrates the literature on
leadership with the research on emotional labor.
Findings – This paper develops 15 propositions that distinguish emotional labor performed by
leaders from that performed by front-line service workers.
Research limitations/implications – The paper suggests that leading with emotional labor is a
fruitful research topic, and that considerable research could be done in this area.
Practical implications – Instead of conducting business in a non-emotional, “business-like
manner”, leaders would beneﬁt by expressing their emotions in the workplace. Emotionally expressive
leaders are more charismatic and are better motivators.
Originality/value – This is the ﬁrst paper to develop a theoretical model that describes how leaders
perform emotional labor; thus the propositions are original.
Keywords Leadership, Emotional intelligence
Paper type Conceptual paper
For decades, management scholars recommended that executives follow Weber’s
advice to keep emotions out of the work place and to practice “administrative
rationality” (Ashforth and Humphrey, 1995). If emotions were discussed at all, it was
primarily in terms of how they interfered with rational decision-making or were part of
interpersonal conﬂict. However, in the last decade, researchers and practitioners alike
have begun to realize the beneﬁts that come from recognizing the value of emotions in
the workplace. Nevertheless, because strong emotions can have either positive or
negative effects on performance, it is essential that leaders learn how to inﬂuence
group members’ emotional reactions. For example, Jordan et al. (2006) found that
negative moods reduced team performance even when controlling for cohesion, task
conﬂict, and workload sharing. In this paper, we argue that, in order to inﬂuence group
members’ emotions, leaders have to perform emotional labor.
Emotional labor has been conceptualized primarily as a duty of front line
service employees (Ashforth and Humphrey, 1993; Ashkanasy and Daus, 2002;
Brotheridge and Grandey, 2002; Morris and Feldman, 1996; Rafaeli and Sutton,
1987). Brotheridge and Grandey (2002) were among the few researchers who
included managers in their study of emotional labor; they found that managers’
frequency of performing emotional labor was higher than that of physical laborers
and matched that of sales/service workers and human service workers. Brotheridge
(2006b, p. 299) listed emotional labor in managers as one of the areas that needs
additional study, and that scholars should examine: “the effect of managers’
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Journal of Managerial Psychology
Vol. 23 No. 2, 2008
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emotions on workers, or the impact of emotional expressiveness on managerial
inﬂuence and leadership processes.” Thus, the main purpose of this paper is to
demonstrate that emotional labor is an important and overlooked function
performed by effective leaders.
We begin by deﬁning emotional labor and related constructs such as emotion
regulation, deep acting and surface acting. This guides us to our deﬁnition of leading
with emotional labor. Next, we discuss the differences in the types of emotional labor
performed by various types of service workers, and we compare and contrast the types
of emotional labor performed by service workers with that performed by leaders. Then,
we relate emotional labor and leadership to emotional contagion, and emotional
expression to current leadership theories. These two sections explain the processes by
which emotional labor inﬂuences leadership. We then discuss some of the research that
demonstrates that emotional labor can be stressful for front-line service workers as a
means of setting the stage for later discussions about whether leaders ﬁnd emotional
labor stressful. We then develop propositions that compare and contrast the emotional
labor processes of leaders and front-line service providers. Although many effects may
be the same, there are also reasons to expect considerable differences in the way that
emotional labor affects leaders. These differences range from personality traits that
distinguish leaders from followers to situational factors, such as the greater position
power and autonomy enjoyed by leaders.
Emotional labor and surface and deep acting
Emotional labor was a term ﬁrst coined by Hochschild (1979, 1983). She argued that
service agents perform emotional labor when they express socially desired emotions
as part of their job role. Perhaps the most common form of emotional labor consists of
“service with a smile” encounters during which waiters and other service workers act
friendly toward customers and clients (Pugh, 2001). Emotional labor is also
performed in other settings, such as health care, where workers are expected to show
sympathy or a variety of other emotions. Hochschild argued that organizations
developed feeling rules that speciﬁed the emotions that employees should feel.
However, Rafaeli and Sutton (1987) and Ashforth and Humphrey (1993) argued that
these organizational rules should more accurately be called display rules because
they referred to observable behaviors (emotional expressions) rather than to
unobservable internal feelings. These observable emotional displays are likely to
have the biggest inﬂuence on customers, or, when performed by leaders, on
subordinates and coworkers. Nonetheless, Ashforth and Humphrey (1993) and other
scholars who used the term display rules recognized that, in order to display the
appropriate emotions, employees might have to regulate their internal emotional
states as well.
Hochschild (1979, 1983) described two ways in which employees alter their
emotional expressions. When employees change their outward emotional expressions
but do not attempt to feel the emotions that they are displaying, they are practicing
surface acting. In contrast, when they attempt to actually feel the emotions they want
to display, they are practicing deep acting. In addition, Ashforth and Humphrey
(1993) argued that employees also perform emotional labor in a third way, namely,
through spontaneous and genuine emotion. Diefendorff et al. (2005) demonstrated that
the expression of naturally felt emotions is an effective form of emotional labor.
Hochschild’s research, along with much of the work on emotional labor, focused on
the stressful and harmful psychological effects of being forced to comply with
organizational display rules (see Bono and Vey (2005), for a recent quantitative
Ashforth and Humphrey (1993) also theorized that surface acting and deep acting
may have harmful psychological effects, but believed that this may depend on the
degree to which the actor identiﬁes with his or her role and occupation. Their third
If emotional labor is consistent with a central, salient, and valued social and/or personal
identity (or identities), it will lead to enhanced psychological wellbeing (Ashforth and
Humphrey, 1993, pp. 100-101).
In their fourth proposition, they stated:
If emotional labor is inconsistent with a central, salient, and valued social and/or personal
identity (or identities), it will lead to emotive dissonance and/or a loss of one’s sense of
authentic self (Ashforth and Humphrey, 1993, p. 101).
Brotheridge and Lee (2002, p. 64) found that identiﬁcation was negatively related to
surface acting and depersonalization, and positively related to deep acting,
authenticity, and personal accomplishment. Despite these positive ﬁndings, they
also found that identiﬁcation was positively related to emotional exhaustion. Their
ﬁndings are particularly important because leaders are more likely to identify with
their role. These studies suggest that performing emotional labor may have complex
effects on leaders, both positive and negative.
Emotional labor may also be conceptualized in terms of its dimensions. Brotheridge
and Lee (2003) developed the six faceted Emotional Labour Scale based on the theories
of Hochschild (1983) and Morris and Feldman (1996). Their scale measures the
“frequency, intensity and variety of emotional display, the duration of interaction, and
surface and deep acting” (Brotheridge and Lee, 2003, p. 365). Although these
dimensions were developed for service employees, they have been applied just as well
to the type of emotional labor performed by leaders.
Table I illustrates some differences between the emotional labor performed by
service workers and that done by leaders. Because the six faceted Emotional Labour
Scale developed by Brotheridge and Lee (2003) is still relatively new, little research has
been done to verify the differences among service workers on this dimensions, and
almost none has been done for managers or other leaders (Brotheridge and Grandey,
2002). Thus, although we offer our best estimates as to what the cell entries should be,
considerable research still needs to be done to verify these entries. The table will help
guide our discussions throughout the paper.
Leading with emotional labor
Humphrey (2005, 2006) developed the phrase “leading with emotional labor” to refer to
managers or other leaders who use emotional labor and emotional displays to inﬂuence
the moods, emotions, motivations and performance of their subordinates or followers.
Although followers and other subordinates are most likely to be inﬂuenced by
observable emotional displays, leaders may have to engage in emotional labor in order
to produce the right emotional expressions to motivate or inﬂuence their followers. We
will use the phrase “leading with emotional labor” to refer to the whole process in
Customer service Caring professions Social control Leaders
Sympathy, caring, compassion,
Anger, fear, frustration,
aggression, irritation, powerful
Happiness, anxiousness, pride,
anger, frustration, satisfaction,
Frequency Multiple customers needing
Multiple clients or patients
needing moderate attention
Variable – not busy to very
Variable – not busy to very
Intensity Low to moderate Moderate to high Variable – low to high Variable – low to high
Variety Monotonous Multiple scenarios Multiple scenarios Multiple scenarios
Duration of social
Brief and repetitive Either brief or potentially
Variable – brief to very
Variable – brief to very
Need for surface
High need for superﬁcial
Occasional need for high
High need for surface acting Frequent need for high surface
Need for deep
Low need for deep acting High need for deep acting Occasional need for deep acting Occasional need for deep acting
Role identiﬁcation Low to moderate Moderate to high Variable – low to high Generally high
Friendliness – “Service with a
Sympathy – “I am so sorry for
Irritation – “Please leave the
Pride – “You are being
Anxiousness – “I’ll be with you
in a few minutes”
Compassion – “Here, let me
help you with that”
Anger – “Your bill is overdue” Frustration – “Get your
monthly report to me as soon
Aggression – “You are under
Fear – “Drop the weapon!”
A comparison of types of
emotions experienced, the
six facets of emotional
labor, and role
identiﬁcation for service
workers and leaders
which leaders use emotional displays to inﬂuence their followers (just as expectancy
theory refers not only to the speciﬁc term expectancy, but also to related concepts like
instrumentality and valence).
Leadership theorists have studied charisma and other forms of emotional
expressiveness (Kellett et al. 2006; Mio et al., 2005); this research shows the importance
of emotional expressiveness to leadership. However, these leadership theories, unlike
the theories of emotional labor, have generally not considered the psychological effects
on the leaders of having to display appropriate emotions – emotions they may not
actually be feeling. The literature on emotional labor suggests that this is not a simple
process for leaders. In the following sections, we will examine the similarities and
differences between leaders and service workers in their use of emotional labor and
Types of emotions expressed by leaders and service workers
Generally speaking, emotional labor has been studied among three types of service
(1) customer service jobs;
(2) caring professions; and
(3) social control jobs.
In customer service jobs, emotional display rules generally require “service with a
smile” (Pugh, 2001; Rafaeli and Sutton, 1987; Van Dijk and Kirk-Brown, 2006). These
jobs generally require the expression of friendly, positive emotions that many people
enjoy expressing and experiencing, although sometimes the hectic work pace makes
these displays difﬁcult. In other words, the emotions that these employees are
required to display are in themselves positive, but unpleasant working conditions and
rude customers may sometimes mean that employees have to fake their emotional
expressions. In caring professions, such as nursing, employees have to display
emotions such as sympathy and concern that are associated with sad and stressful
life events. Thus, these occupations often have high levels of burnout. The third
category, social control, includes occupations such as police, bouncers, and bill
collectors. As Sutton (1991) demonstrated in his study of bill collectors, the display
norms in these industries may require the expression of anger or other emotions that
are generally considered to be negative. Displaying these negative emotions to the
right degree may be difﬁcult, for example, displaying enough irritation or anger to
get the customer to pay up, but not so much that the customer ﬁles a complaint. In
general, the type of emotions that employees have to display varies by the type of
Leaders may have to display a wide variety of emotions, ranging from friendliness,
to sympathy and support, to anger. Thus, they must be able to display all of the
emotions required by the three different types of service workers. Moreover, they have
to use judgment about which emotion to display at a particular time. For example,
when an employee comes in tardy, a leader may have to choose between showing
sympathy for the employee’s personal problems that caused the lateness and
expressing stern disapproval. The decision regarding which emotion to display may be
considerably more complicated than that of the typical service worker, who often has
to display the same emotion in a repetitive fashion.
Our ﬁrst proposition is as follows:
P1. Effective leaders will display a wide range of emotions, including friendliness,
sympathy, and social control-type emotions; whereas service workers typically
have to express a more limited range of emotions appropriate to their
occupation. Moreover, leaders must exercise considerably more judgment
about which emotions to portray compared to front line service workers.
Leaders as managers of others’ emotions
Several studies have demonstrated that leaders have substantial inﬂuence over group
members’ moods and emotional states, and that this inﬂuence can either help or hinder
employee performance. For example, three studies have shown that leaders can either
increase or decrease subordinates’ feelings of frustration. First, Pirola-Merlo et al.
(2002) studied how negative workplace events, such as obstacles to performance,
inﬂuenced the affective group climate and the performance of research and
development teams. Their theoretical model was based on Affective Events Theory
(AET; Weiss and Cropanzano, 1996; Weiss et al., 1999). According to AET, individuals
have average mood levels that can be either depressed or elevated by positive or
negative events at work. Perola-Merlo et al. (2002) argued that one of the functions of
managers is to help their subordinates cope with the numerous negative events that
occur in the workplace. Consistent with their model, they found that leaders with
facilitative and transformational leadership styles helped subordinates overcome the
mood damaging effects of workplace obstacles. Moreover, their path analysis found
that these mood effects translated into increased performance.
A second study also found that leaders inﬂuenced subordinates’ feelings of
frustration and optimism (McColl-Kennedy and Anderson, 2002). Drawing on
transformational leadership theory (Bass and Avolio, 1994), McColl-Kennedy and
Anderson argued that one of the important functions of leaders was to instil feelings of
optimism and to convince followers that challenging goals were obtainable. These
researchers found that transformational leaders had strong positive effects on
subordinates’ feelings of optimism. Moreover, as in the ﬁrst study, they found that
these feelings of optimism strongly inﬂuenced employee performance.
A third study, by Pescosolido (2002), theorized that individuals who could manage
the emotions of fellow team members would emerge as leaders. Pescosolido argued that
leaders inﬂuenced group members’ emotions in two ways. First, leaders have a better
understanding of the appropriate response to workplace events, and they convey the
correct response by role modeling the right emotional tone. Second, emergent leaders
create shared emotional experiences that bond group members together and increase
feelings of morale. Pescosolido used a combination of qualitative and quantitative
methods to study 20 work groups. His results supported his model and also
demonstrated that leaders needed to display conﬁdence in order to help group members
cope with frustrating events. These studies suggest the following propositions:
P2. Under conditions of ambiguity or uncertainty, group members look to leaders’
emotional responses: leaders with optimistic emotional displays will increase
group members’ positive moods and feelings of conﬁdence, whereas leaders
with negative emotional displays will increase group members’ negative
moods and feelings of frustration.
P3. Group members’ moods inﬂuence performance, with feelings of frustration
lowering performance and feelings of optimism and conﬁdence raising
The role of emotional labor in managing others’ emotions
As the preceding studies demonstrate, effective managers need to be able to display
feelings of conﬁdence and optimism especially when their employees are feeling
frustrated by workplace obstacles. Leaders have to express optimism even when facing
the same conﬁdence-shattering crisis as the other group members. Luthans and Avolio
(2003, p. 248) made a similar argument when they stated that:
[...] authentic leaders lead from the front, going in advance of others when there is a risk of
doing so. They model conﬁdence, hope, optimism, and resiliency, which inspire others to
action (Luthans and Avolio, 2003, p. 248).
In many cases, leaders may have to display conﬁdence (through surface acting) even
when they are experiencing the doubts and worries of their group members. They may
also attempt to use deep acting to bolster their own conﬁdence and try to feel the
emotions they want to portray. Even if the leaders do feel conﬁdent, they must also be
able to display this conﬁdence in a way that inspires their employees. Thus, part of the
leader’s job is to portray emotions that are not necessarily felt, in other words, to
perform emotional labor. Considerable research has examined the role of emotional
labor in service encounters (Ashforth and Humphrey, 1993; Ashkanasy and Daus,
2002; Brotheridge and Grandey, 2002; Morris and Feldman, 1996; Pugh, 2001; Rafaeli
and Sutton, 1987). These studies have shown the difﬁculties that employees face while
performing emotional labor, such as feeling stress and other negative psychological
outcomes (e.g. Cote and Morgan, 2002; Van Dijk and Kirk-Brown, 2006). As previously
mentioned, Brotheridge and Lee (2002) found that high identiﬁers had higher
performance (i.e. personal accomplishment), but were also more likely to suffer
emotional exhaustion. An analogous process may occur with leaders: leaders who
engage in emotional labor to boost the conﬁdence of their followers may help their
subordinates while increasing their own emotional exhaustion. This is likely to be a
complex phenomena, because leaders may also beneﬁt (through deep acting) by
portraying conﬁdence, and may also beneﬁt by the greater success of their team. As a
way of stimulating research on this complex process, we propose the following:
P4. During times of crisis or other negative events, leaders who engage in
emotional labor to display more positive emotions than what they are actually
feeling will increase their subordinates’ feelings of conﬁdence and optimism.
These positive effects will be greater for leaders who use deep acting rather
than surface acting.
P5. During times of crisis or other negative events, surface acting will contribute
to leaders’ emotional exhaustion.
Emotional contagion and leading with emotional labor
One of the most important ways in which leaders inﬂuence their followers’ moods is
through emotional contagion. Emotional contagion occurs when people catch or begin
to share the moods of those around them, often by mimicking their “movements,
expressions, postures, and vocalizations” (Hatﬁeld et al., 1992, pp. 153-154). Emotional
contagion can be quite powerful, for example, Barsade (2002) demonstrated how
emotions can spread throughout the workplace and inﬂuence group behaviors. Pugh
(2001) showed why “service with a smile” is so effective: because customers catch the
positive moods displayed by service workers. Although much of the work on emotional
contagion has examined how emotions are spread among peers, Sy et al. (2005) found
that leaders’ moods were especially contagious, and that their moods inﬂuenced group
affective tone and other group processes. Goleman et al. (2002) concept of “resonance”
is based on emotional contagion. According to their model, leaders must ﬁrst establish
resonance, or emotional synchronization, with their followers before they can guide
them to more productive emotional states. Epitropaki (2006) argued that emotional
contagion ﬂows more from leaders (and power-holders) to followers rather than
vice-versa, because followers focus their attention more on leaders. In a study of 126
managers and their direct reports, she found that managers’ deep acting, but not their
surface acting, signiﬁcantly inﬂuenced subordinates’ perceptions of whether the
managers were transformational leaders.
In order to use emotional contagion to inﬂuence their followers, leaders have to
engage in emotional labor; in other words, they have to express the emotions that they
want the group members to feel.
P6. Leaders who engage in deep acting will be more emotionally contagious than
leaders who either use surface acting or who do not perform emotional labor.
Leadership theories and emotional expressiveness
One duty of managers, or leaders, is to be emotionally expressive. In assigning an
important role to emotional expression in her leadership model, George (2000) argued
that the communication of emotions aids in goal attainment as well as the development
of constructive interpersonal relationships. For example, Kellett et al. (2006) found that
emotional expressiveness predicted empathy, which then predicted relationship
leadership. However, equally important was their ﬁnding that emotional
expressiveness directly predicted task leadership, which shows that expressing
emotions is important not only for relationship leadership but also for task
performance. Expressing stern, social control-type emotions may help to motivate
group members who have a tendency to slack off, whereas expressing enthusiasm may
motivate people to complete their work tasks. Emotional expressiveness may also
serve as a signaling device to aid in communication; for example, task leaders may put
greater urgency into their vocal tone when discussing top priorities.
Charismatic theories of leadership attribute a central role to emotional
expressiveness, and argue that charismatic leaders deliberately express emotions to
inﬂuence their followers (Gardner and Avolio, 1998; Waldman and Yammarino, 1999).
For example, charismatic leaders are more effective at communicating because they
use emotionally arousing metaphors and similar devices (Mio et al., 2005). Emotional
displays play a large role in subordinates’ impressions of their leaders’ sincerity
(Dasborough and Ashkanasy, 2002) and may even be more important than the content
of the message in inﬂuencing judgments about the leader (Newcombe and Ashkanasy,
2002). In a study of leaders from 64 organizations, Groves (2005), found that leaders’
skills in emotional expressivity determined others’ perceptions of their charismatic
leadership. De Hoogh and her coauthors (De Hoogh et al., 2005) demonstrated that
charisma can increase effectiveness, for example, by improving subordinates’ work
attitudes. Likewise, Strange and Mumford (2005) used an experimental design to show
that strong vision statements were more affectively engaging.
Transformational leadership theories have given special attention to the role of
emotional expressiveness (Bass and Avolio, 1994). Transformational leaders are
characterized by the following four attributes: idealized inﬂuence, inspirational
motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration. Being
emotionally expressive primarily involves the inspirational motivation and
individualized consideration aspects of transformational leadership. We argue that
emotional labor can help leaders make their speeches and communications more
inspiring. Unless leaders put emotions into their communications, they are not likely to
be inspiring, nor are they likely to establish a personalized, individual relationship with
others. Because leaders are faced with the same busy, hectic work-life as their
followers, they may need to take extra care and effort to shape their communications to
be inspiring; in others words, they may need to use emotional labor to create the
impressions that they want to give. This line of reasoning suggests the following
P7. Leaders who perform emotional labor will be perceived as better
communicators, and deep acting will be more effective than surface acting
at increasing perceptions of communication skill.
P8. Leaders who perform emotional labor will be more likely to be perceived as
transformational leaders, and deep acting will be more effective than surface
acting at increasing perceptions of transformational leadership.
Stress and emotional labor
A signiﬁcant amount of research has examined the relationship between emotional
labor and stress. A recent quantitative review by Bono and Vey (2005) found that
emotional dissonance (a discrepancy between felt and expressed emotions), deep acting
and surface acting were related to emotional exhaustion, and that emotional
dissonance was related to depersonalization and physical complaints. Lee and
Ashforth (1996) described depersonalization as a defensive measure taken by
employees to avoid the strain caused by an insufﬁcient emotional ability to cope with
interpersonal stressors. Brotheridge and Lee (2002) found that deep acting was
positively related to personal accomplishment and authenticity, and negatively related
to depersonalization. They also found that surface acting was negatively related to
authenticity and positively related to depersonalization. Brotheridge and Grandey
(2002) found that the strategy by which employees handle emotions, by either surface
acting or deep acting, seems to play a role in emotional health, levels of stress, and
distancing. Deep acting, as opposed to faking emotions, is the preferred method of
addressing emotions as it leads to positive outcomes such as feelings of personal
accomplishment whereas faking can lead to distancing or depersonalization.
P9. Leaders who use surface acting to inﬂuence their followers will experience
more stress and feelings of depersonalization than will leaders who use deep
Emotional intelligence, emotional labor, and leadership
Emotional intelligence and other emotional abilities may give leaders the ability to
more effectively perform emotional labor. For example, two people may both perform
emotional labor, but one may do it in a clumsy and ineffective way, while the other may
perform emotional labor in a superb fashion. There are numerous deﬁnitions of
emotional intelligence and related abilities; Ashkanasy and Daus (2005, p. 442) argued
that Mayer and Salovey’s (1997) four branch model of emotional intelligence most
accurately ﬁts the deﬁnition of an intelligence:
(1) perception of emotion (in self and others);
(2) assimilation of emotion to facilitate thought;
(3) understanding of emotion; and
(4) managing and regulating emotion in self and others.
In their inﬂuential review, Daus and Ashkanasy (2005) demonstrated that recent
emotional intelligence scales (MSCEIT) based on Mayer et al.’s (2000) model have
appropriate discriminate and predictive validity and are not simply redundant
measures of the Big Five personality measures (extraversion, neuroticism,
agreeableness, openness to experience, and conscientiousness). (MSCEIT stands for
the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, see Mayer et al., 2001, 2000.)
Emotional intelligence scales have also shown discriminate value with regard to other
traits as well; for example, Jordan et al. (2002) have shown that the Workgroup
Emotional Intelligence Proﬁle (WEIP) is distinct from the 16 Personality Factors, the
Revised Self-Monitoring Scales, and the Personal Style Inventory. The WEIP is also
based on the Mayer and Salovey (1997) model of emotional intelligence.
Kellett et al. (2002, 2006) demonstrated that the WEIP measures predicted
leadership emergence in assessment center groups. Although they did not directly
study emotional labor, the emotional abilities they studied may be particularly relevant
to performing emotional labor. The ability to recognize emotions in others may help
leaders know when they need to perform emotional labor, for example, by recognizing
when frustrated employees need sympathy or other forms of motivation and support
(in order to provide sympathy, the leaders may have to display sympathetic emotional
expressions, i.e. perform emotional labor). The ability to express one’s own emotions
may help leaders perform emotional labor, because emotional labor is only effective if
emotions are expressed in a way that has an impact on the receivers. This may help
most when leaders’ emotional displays consist of spontaneous and genuine emotions,
but it seems reasonable to believe that the ability to express one’s emotions is a skill
that may help with all three types of emotional labor:
(1) surface acting;
(2) deep acting; and
(3) spontaneous and genuine emotional expression.
The Kellett et al. (2002, 2006) ﬁnding that expressing one’s own emotions predicts
directly to task leadership suggests that leaders may perform emotional labor not only
to express sympathy, but also to express other emotions as well, such as irritation at
slackers, or enthusiasm for good performance. Empathy occurs when the leaders
actually feel and share the emotions that the subordinates are experiencing. Their
results imply that leaders who use emotional labor to establish an authentic empathic
bond with their subordinates will be the best leaders.
Brotheridge (2006a) studied how one measure of emotional intelligence (MSCEIT)
related to emotional labor and situational demands. She found that:
[...]the key role of emotional intelligence seemed to be as a predictor of the perceived
situational demands, which, in turn, predicted the nature of emotional labor that was
performed. Workers with higher levels of emotional intelligence were found to be more likely
to perceive the need to frequently display emotions as part of their work role and perform
deep acting in response to these situational demands (Brotheridge, 2006a, p. 139).
P10. Leaders high on emotional intelligence will be better at recognizing when
situational demands call for performing emotional labor.
P11. Leaders high on the ability to express their own emotions will be better at
performing all three types of emotional labor.
P12. Leaders high on empathy will prefer to use genuine emotional expressions
and deep acting instead of surface acting.
Autonomy and position power
Although organizations have display rules that specify the type of emotions that
should be portrayed, these display rules may vary considerably in the amount of
autonomy they give service workers and leaders. Just as some organizations measure
performance by processes and strictly regulate the behaviors and processes used by
employees, others have display rules that specify the exact greetings or other words to
be used by employees. For example, many fast-food restaurants and retail
establishments require their cashiers to say “thank you” or “have a nice day,” or
some similarly scripted response. In contrast, other organizations have display rules
that give employees considerably greater freedom to express themselves. Because
some organizations encourage variety in emotional expressions and others do not,
Morris and Feldman (1996) and Brotheridge and Lee (2003) list variety as one of the
facets of emotional labor. These differences in display rules may be traced to
differences in organizational culture (Ashforth and Humphrey, 1995). For example,
Southwest Airlines is famous for giving its employees the freedom to tell jokes or act in
a spontaneous manner in dealing with customers. Thus, Southwest Airlines, although
it actually places a higher premium on emotional expressiveness than does its
competitors, has display rules that give greater autonomy to employees. Kelly and
Barsade (2001) also discuss how organization-wide emotion norms can constrain or
amplify group members’ emotions.
One major difference between managers and subordinates concerns the degree of
position power and autonomy that they have. This difference may inﬂuence whether or
not they ﬁnd emotional labor to be stressful. Although it may be tempting to assume
that managers and leaders always have more autonomy and personal control than
subordinates, this may not always be the case. For example, Brotheridge and Grandey
(2002) found that managers choose to modify their emotional expressions with
customers as much as their front-line service workers did, even though the former had
more formal job autonomy. Frontline employees often feel very little responsibility for
the success of a business, and may not intend to be long-term employees anyway. In
contrast, managers may feel more responsible for the success of the work-unit and may
feel greater pressure to display the right emotions to please customers.
The degree to which managers have autonomy in their interactions with
organizational members may also vary widely. The organizational setting makes
many leader behaviors non-discretionary, which means that many apparently
voluntary leader behaviors are actually guided by organizational policies, corporate
culture and organizationally-determined behavioral scripts (Hunt et al., 1978; Osborn
and Ashforth, 1990). For example, Humphrey and Ashforth (2000) found that top
management strategy that was passed down through the various management levels
inﬂuenced buyers’ interpersonal interactions with supplier agents, and that this
organizational inﬂuence was more important than the buyers’ preferred interaction
style. As a result, many buyers had to use a less friendly and more formal style than
they preferred, and in some cases even used threats. In the same way, managers and
leaders at various levels of the organization are likely to ﬁnd that their emotional
displays are inﬂuenced by organizational strategy and corporate culture, and do not
solely reﬂect their personal preferences.
There are many types of work events that are likely to require managers and other
leaders to adopt a “get tough” stance towards their subordinates. For example, Bryant
and Cox (2006) described how managers adopted hostile emotional displays when they
communicated bad news about demotions, displacements, and other negative
organizational changes. In some cases, the managers had worked side-by-side for years
with the subordinates on a good basis until the change programs implemented by the
company caused the managers to distance themselves from the subordinates (Bryant
and Cox, 2006, p. 122). Bryant and Cox also found that subordinates had to use
emotional labor to help them avoid displaying their negative reactions to their
managers. Their study suggests that many workplace events are likely to stimulate
managers to publicly display emotions supportive of the organization’s get- tough
policies; even if the managers would privately prefer to express support to the people
they had worked collegially with for years. These negative emotional displays are
likely to exasperate the conﬂict between managers and subordinates and to create
stress for both parties. For example, Dasborough (2006) found that leader originated
negative events strongly inﬂuenced subordinate moods, and that subordinates were
more likely to recall negative events than positive ones.
As scholars have known since Fiedler ﬁrst developed his contingency theory of
leadership, managers also vary in their position power relative to their subordinates.
Although in some organizations managers have considerable leeway to hire and ﬁre
employees, in other organizations managers have little authority over their
subordinates due to pressure from upper-administrators or from unions. In other
cases, managers’ authority may be limited by their reliance on the skills and expertise
of their subordinates. Managers may have to seek the goodwill and cooperation of their
subordinates to get the job done, and thus may feel required to perform emotional
Conversely, there may also be conditions where managers and leaders have
considerable autonomy to choose the emotions they express with their subordinates. In
these cases they may perform emotional displays that reﬂect their own personal
identities and sense of self. Under these conditions performing emotional labor may
actually increase leaders’ wellbeing and sense of fulﬁllment (Ashforth and Humphrey,
1993). Consistent with this perspective, Brotheridge and Grandey (2002, p. 17) found
that “Perceiving the demand to display positive emotions and using deep-level
regulation were associated with a heightened sense of personal accomplishment,
suggesting positive beneﬁts to this aspect of work.” Likewise, Van Dijk and
Kirk-Brown (2006) found that performing emotional labor only created negative
outcomes when it also created feelings of dissonance – if people identiﬁed with their
roles and with their emotional displays then they did not feel emotional exhaustion.
P13. Managers with low personal control but high responsibility will feel greater
stress than front-line service workers when performing emotional labor.
P14. Managers who must use emotional labor to express “get-tough” negative
emotions that are inconsistent with their true feelings and personal identity
will experience heightened levels of stress.
P15. Leaders with high personal control who use emotional labor to express
positive emotions that are consistent with their personal identity will
experience an increased sense of wellbeing and fulﬁlment.
The literature reviewed here suggests that leaders frequently perform emotional labor
as part of their effort to inﬂuence their followers’ moods and emotions. Because
followers’ moods and emotions can have a substantial effect on their performance,
leaders who are successful at inﬂuencing moods may be more effective. The type of
emotional labor performed by leaders is likely to differ in signiﬁcant ways from the
emotional labor performed by subordinates. Many service workers perform emotional
labor in a highly repetitive fashion, and usually have a narrow range of emotions that
they have to display for their particular job type. In contrast, leaders are likely to need
to display a wide range of emotions in their efforts to manage employees and other
types of followers and team members. Moreover, leaders must exercise considerably
more judgment about which emotions to display. It may be especially important for
leaders to use emotional labor during times of crisis or when confronting other
negative workplace events. During these times leaders need to publicly display
emotions indicative of conﬁdence and optimism even if they privately share the same
worries and anxieties of their subordinates. Although performing surface acting may
make leaders more effective, it may also add to leaders’ feelings of emotional
Leading with emotional labor may work in part through emotional contagion
processes. Leaders who perform emotional labor may also be more emotionally
expressive and better communicators. Their greater communication skills may help
them be perceived as transformational leaders.
Obtaining success through leading with emotional labor does have some costs,
especially for those who use surface acting. The literature suggests that leaders who
use surface acting may experience feelings of depersonalization, although those who
use deep acting or genuine emotional displays may not suffer the same effects. Leaders
with higher emotional intelligence may also be better at recognizing when to perform
emotional labor and may better realize the advantages of using genuine emotional
expressions and deep acting. Organizational factors that determine the amount of
personal control and autonomy that leaders have over their emotional displays may
have a strong inﬂuence over whether leaders perform emotional labor. These
organizational and situational factors may also inﬂuence whether leaders ﬁnd
performing emotional labor to be stressful or not.
The propositions here still need to be tested; very little work has been done
examining how leaders perform emotional labor as a way of inﬂuencing subordinates,
team members, and followers. However, the available research suggests that this
should be a fruitful line of research for many years.
These propositions also have tremendous practical implications. Most importantly,
they suggest that managers need to pay attention to the moods and emotions of their
followers. This advice is in complete opposition to the advice published frequently in
the news – and even in some academic textbooks – that argued that variables such as
job satisfaction have nothing to do with performance and productivity.
These propositions also strongly suggest that the popular advice to “act in a
business-like manner” and to refrain from displaying emotions needs to be changed.
Although managers and other leaders may not have to express emotions
24-hours-a-day, expressing the appropriate emotions is a key function that both task
and relationship leaders need to perform. Thus rather than telling managers and other
leaders not to express their emotions, leaders need better training in how to express
their emotions effectively. This may help leaders use either deep acting or genuine
emotional expressions and avoid the harmful psychological effects that accompany
surface acting. Mastering the basic skills behind genuine emotional expression and
deep acting may make the workplace more productive and enjoyable for both leaders
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About the authors
Ronald H. Humphrey, whose current research interests focus on how both cognitive and
emotional processes inﬂuence leadership, has published in the Academy of Management Review,
Research in Organizational Behavior, Leadership Quarterly, American Sociological Review, Social
Psychology Quarterly, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Human Relations, Organization
Science, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Public Opinion Quarterly, Journal of
Organizational Behavior, and other leading journals. Ron also enjoys teaching
undergraduates, MBAs and doctoral students in the Department of Management at Virginia
Commonwealth University. He gained his BA at the University of Chicago; his PhD at the
University of Michigan; and his Postdoctoral Fellow at the Indiana University. Ronald
H. Humphrey is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: email@example.com
Jeffrey M. Pollack is currently pursing a PhD at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Pollack’s current research focus is directed towards the domains of leadership and
entrepreneurship. From a social cognitive perspective, Pollack explores what factors enable
leaders and entrepreneurs to respond adaptively to setbacks.
Thomas Hawver is a doctoral student in Organizational Behavior at Virginia Commonwealth
University’s School of Business in Richmond, Virginia. His research interests include emotional
labor, emotional intelligence of general surgeons, and entrepreneurial ﬁrm performance and its
relationship to strategic human resource systems.
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