The limits of surface acting: a little bit of empathy goes a long way

Surface acting is a term applied to individuals who, for employment purposes, exhibit emotions that are not truly felt (Ashforth and Humphrey, 1993). Think of anyone who performs a customer fronting or facing role and you get the idea. There can be a big disparity between how an employee presents to the customer and how they really feel. Individuals who engage in surface acting in the line of duty can be prone to emotional exhaustion or burnout (e.g. Brotheridge and Grandey, 2002).

A little bit of empathy can go a long way.  My current role working as a call centre agent has made me reconsider the customer – company relationship. Dealing with the occasional irate or unreasonable customer is part of the job. I always try to be polite and patient when dealing with customers. A willingness to acknowledge mistakes on both sides tends to lead to a quicker more amenable solution. Helping a dissatisfied customer is satisfying. That feeling of satisfaction is diminished when an individual fails to appreciate the efforts of the employee.

Goal in Spring
In many call centre environments relationships between caller and customer service agent are transactional and brief. ‘I’d like to buy X at Y for…’. By way of contrast, in teaching for example, the relationship between teacher and pupil/student is more relational, developing over time. The first impression that a caller or call handler makes may well be the only one. The effect of dealing with a series of disgruntled customers can be extremely draining. Equally, as I know from my own teaching experience, there are many occasions when classroom practitioners are obliged ‘to act’ in order to get through the day.

Being physically present but, at least partly on a deeper level, emotionally absent comes at a cost.  Wulsin et al.’s (2014:1817) judgement, based on a thorough study of  214,213 people, covering 55 industries in western Pennsylvania, of some the difficulties associated with bus driving and similarly poor performing occupations seem reasonable including, as they state, a:
“Greater effort–reward imbalance, emotional labor, and lack of physical activity at work, although no lower levels of job control or higher levels of work/family conflict”.  
The authors concluded that bus drivers were the most likely to suffer from depression (Wulsin et al., 2014).

What can employers do? In a call centre environment, companies can make targets obtainable and avoid the worst excesses described in Carter et al. (2011).
What can customers do? Appreciate that a conversation, even a transactional one, has a minimum of two parties. Both of whom have the right to be treated with respect. Remember to be nice..

Ashforth, B.E. and Humphrey, R.H., 1993. Emotional labor in service roles: The influence of identity. Academy of management review, 18(1), pp.88-115.

Brotheridge, C.M. and Grandey, A.A., 2002. Emotional labor and burnout: Comparing two perspectives of “people work”. Journal of vocational behavior, 60(1), pp.17-39.

Wulsin, L., Alterman, T., Bushnell, P. T., Li, J. and Shen, R. (2014) ‘Prevalence rates for depression by industry: a claims database analysis.’ Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 49(11) pp. 1805-1821

Carter, B., Danford, A., Howcroft, D., Richardson, H., Smith, A. and Taylor, P., 2011. ‘All they lack is a chain’: lean and the new performance management in the British civil service. New Technology, Work and Employment, 26(2), pp.83-97.


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