Organisations invest up to 15 per cent of their personnel budget on meetings, yet their ubiquity is a common source of frustration, partly validated by evidence that as many as a third of meetings simply aren't productive. As research catches on to the importance of this area, we are beginning to understand how practical factors like agendas and refreshments influence meeting quality. So what about the emotional side to meetings? According to a new study, meeting attendees who feel the need to mask their emotional reactions get less from the meeting itself, and are more likely to experience negative long-term outcomes such as burnout.
The phenomenon we are talking about is surface acting: managing emotions by expressing the 'right' one, even though you may be feeling the opposite. Surface acting is mainly studied in interactions with customers, but Linda Shanock and colleagues suspected that the quasi-public nature of the meeting makes it a perfect venue within which surface acting can manifest. After all, meetings involve a variety of events and decisions that can potentially affect your work future even more profoundly than a grumpy customer can.
Shanock's team predicted that because surface acting demands self-control and puts pressure on our resources, it can restrict the attention we put towards the actual goals of the meeting, making it less likely to get a satisfactory outcome than if we were not so distracted. Their data, collected online from 178 participants from a variety of roles with a range of meeting regularity (mean 2.5 per week, some less than once per week), suggested such a relationship existed. Participants rated items like 'I tend to fake a good mood when interacting with others in the meeting’ to produce a surface acting score, and this score was negatively associated with their rating of typical meeting effectiveness, in terms of networking, achieving work goals, or learning useful information.
Long term effects were also measured three months on. Participants who indicated higher surface acting had higher emotional exhaustion (or burnout) scores. The authors interprets this as consistent with previous findings that surface acting is frustrating and emotionally draining, and also consistent with the subjective feeling referred to as 'meeting recovery syndrome'. In addition, habitual surface actors were more likely to have an intention to quit the organisation entirely. Again this is linked to the harmful effects of surface acting.
We might conclude then, that individual tendencies toward employing surface acting during meetings harm meeting quality – at least in terms of meeting their own goals – and have long term negative consequences. However, I wouldn't go quite so far yet. The study authors advise caution before we attribute causality, while arguing that their two waves of data collection allow more confidence that surface acting is causing exhaustion and not vice versa. My concern, however, is that a hidden variable could be driving all of these factors. An organisation, team or employee in crisis is likely to be subject to more emotional exhaustion, higher turnover, ineffective meetings and more frequent incidents of breaking bad news that may call for stiff upper lips. Shanock’s team conducted one analysis that demonstrated a single factor explanation being a poorer fit to the data, but ‘in crisis’ is a catch-all for a collection of situational influences. I would like to see more work looking within organisations – even within teams – to see if two individuals in similar circumstances experience meetings differently due to their tendency to surface act.
Nevertheless the link between surface acting and negative outcomes in meetings draws our attention to this unremarked-upon phenomenon. Organisations should be concerned about members habitually holding in their feelings. As this study suggests, this may make them unhappy and even lead to their organisational exit, while getting less from meetings than they would do if not preoccupied with hiding their emotions. And more generally, openness is important for the frank and free exchange of information, making meetings more efficient and productive.
Linda R. Shanock, Joseph A. Allen, Alexandra M. Dunn, Benjamin E. Baran, Cliff W. Scott, & Steven G. Rogelberg (2013). Less acting, more doing: How surface acting relates to perceived meeting effectiveness and other employee outcomes Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 86, 457-476 DOI: 10.1111/joop.12037
Leach, D. J., Rogelberg, S. G., Warr, P. B., & Burnfield, J. L. (2009). Perceived meeting effectiveness: The role of design characteristics. Journal of Business and Psychology, 24, 65–76. doi:10.1007/s10869-009-9092-6