“Serenity Now!” Emotion Management and Solidarity in the Workplace

Image: Nathan Dumlao

Monday 11th February, 2019

By Jordan McKenzie, Rebecca E Olson, Roger Patulny, Alberto Bellocchi, Kathy A Mills

Why are employers so interested in resilience training these days? And who benefits from workers’ emotion management strategies? Perhaps more importantly: what do these questions have in common? In our new article ‘Emotion management and solidarity in the workplace: A call for a new research agenda’ in The Sociological Review, we propose a few ways to think about the challenge of managing emotions at work. 

The skills associated with emotion management, emotion regulation and emotional intelligence are increasingly valued in the modern workplace. They are linked to lower levels of attritionhigher levels of performance, and effective forms of collaboration. Arguably, modern workplaces require more ‘filtering’ of emotional performances than in previous generations and this is increasingly being guided by policies and guidelines, rather than informal knowledge. But what is emotion management and who is it good for?

This paper differentiates the original meaning of emotion management as used by Arlie Russell Hochschild (1983) from the current conflation of this term with emotion regulation in the organisational psychology literature. While this corporate literature aims to produce more efficient and productive workplaces, it inevitably views emotion management as a set of skills that can, and should, be maximised. 

But there are consequences associated with constantly having to manage one’s emotions. In considering these consequences, we can’t help but think of the characters in Seinfeld repeating the mantra ‘Serenity Now!’ in an attempt to suppress stress, only to have it bottle up and explode in comical ways throughout the show.

In our paper, we return to Hochschild’s famous observation that emotion management takes a lot of work. It is exhausting; when performed in a shallow (‘surface acting’) way, it is linked to higher levels of burnout and distress. Perhaps most importantly, it is a highly gendered, racialized and class-based phenomenon. The work of emotion management is typically forced on those with less power, and historically has added to forms of unpaid labour in female-dominated industries like nursing, customer service roles, and in the case of our paper, teaching. 

It may seem cynical, but there is no reason to think that what is good for the emotional well-being of the worker will automatically align with what is good for the employer’s bottom line. Yet this critical skepticism towards emotion management is noticeably absent from much of the organisational psychology literature.

We argue that emotion management is an important feature of social interaction, but assuming that ‘more is always better’ creates potentially dangerous working environments. We also challenge the assumption that being emotionally resilient necessarily means that a person is going to be happier or have better mental health; it may just increase the work stress that they are expected to absorb. Therefore, emotion management should not be implemented as a workplace strategy without due consideration.

Hochschild intended for her theory of emotion management and emotional labour to be a critique, not an instruction manual for 21st century managers. Emotional labour in the workplace inevitably involves commodifying aspects of our emotional experiences in ways that can threaten feelings of authenticity, selfhood and well-being.

While teaching is considered to be a fulfilling and rewarding profession that attracts passionate and motivated employees, the corporate/managerial application of mandatory emotion management, emotion regulation and emotional intelligence strategies risks alienating teachers from the authentic experience of their work. The teaching profession is not alone here as it shares many of these characteristics with other forms of care work, such as nursing, childcare and social work. Yet the task of running a classroom demands specific skills in managing and performing emotions. Teachers manage the emotions of students by exaggerating or downplaying their own emotions, and this skill can take years to master. A teacher may act disappointed when the class is being disruptive, or act excited to add energy to the class, even when the teacher feels something altogether different. Classrooms are highly emotive spaces with lots of different and conflicting emotions occurring simultaneously, and effective teachers need to be able to manage this emotional climate in order to lead the classroom.

But what happens when burying unpleasant emotions under the surface becomes exhausting? Or when the teacher has to defend a new school policy that they themselves disagree with? The idea that building up resilience in these teachers will address the endemic rates of attrition in the profession appeals to some degree of common sense, but the conditions that generate these emotions – and therefore, the emotions themselves – continue to bubble away under the surface. When unacknowledged, they require continuous management and, can give rise to further, difficult emotions linked to failure to manage them: shame, guilt, stress and frustration.

The primary sociological contribution to this critique is that emotions are not reducible to individualised personal experiences. They are susceptible to contextual factors beyond our control. Emotions are not simply individualized phenomena; we can also experience emotions collectively and in the presence of others. As a result, the emotions that we express and share function as a form of communication with those around us. We are not only performing emotions in all interactions (genuinely or artificially), but we are constantly analysing and interpreting the emotional performances of others and ourselves. These performances are evidence of, and also a contributing factor to, power structures, inequalities and social change.

Therefore, we argue that the dialogue around emotion management in the workplace needs to change. While emotion management is an important aspect of civil and effective workplace interaction, it is also a form of labour that must be recognised as such. It can be exhausting, demoralising and humiliating. Furthermore, the contemporary emphasis on resilience and emotional intelligence strategies offer only quick fixes to structural problems. ‘Serenity Now’ might temporarily mitigate anger, rage or frustration, but if the workplace remains toxic and unhealthy, emotion management won’t make those problems go away.

Jordan McKenzie is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Wollongong, Australia.
Rebecca E. Olson is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland, Australia.
Roger Patulny is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Research Methods at the University of Wollongong, Australia.
Alberto Bellocchi is a Principal Research Fellow and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology, Australia.
Kathy A. Mills is Professor of Literacies and Digital Cultures at the Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education, Australian Catholic University, Australia.

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