Thursday, 28 November 2013

Not getting much out of meetings? You may be masking your feelings too much

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.

ResearchBlogging.orgLinda 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

Further reading:
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


  1. Good piece, though I'm surprised to see that the proportion of personnel budget that goes in meetings is estimated at 15% - I'd put it far higher, based on observation and experience.
    If that's so (OK, big if), then presumably the surface acting/negative outcomes/burnout toll is greater? As you say, there may be other hidden variables going on that affect outcomes. Wonder how it maps onto factors such as engagement, organisational culture, diversity, etc.
    One to watch.

  2. Hi Dawn

    The meeting statistic was taken from the article, and the citation is Doyle, M., & Strauss, D. (1982). How to make meetings work. New York, NY: Jove.
    and it may be that meeting investment has ramped up since then. So it may be ever more significant. As you say, one to watch!

  3. I guess it's good to get the data on this - but isn't this obvious? "unremarked upon phenomenon"?? It as if generations of psychologists and researchers have never studied the origins of Behaviour Therapy in terms of assertiveness, emotional freedom and disinhibition (unbraking) of the nervous system.
    We have a whole culture that mistrusts and avoids emotion (and emotional expression) - and then we wonder why we are dissatisfied in meetings and with life in general. Surface acting is rampant and emotionally corrosive (or rather emotionally constipating and alcohol becomes the socially accepted emotional laxative.)

  4. We have a business culture that, in fact, values and rewards surface acting.
    It’s not simply an unfortunate by-product of the avoidance & mistrust of emotion. It’s regarded as a sought-after competence.
    When someone is described as ‘politically astute’ an aspect of that accolade recognises that they are good at surface acting. When a project manager demonstrates good stakeholder management skills, he or she is often using surface acting as a key tactic. When people negotiate (over prices, remuneration levels, job roles, investment decisions – you name it) I would argue that they cannot succeed in getting the best deal unless they surface act.
    So what we’re seeing here is a valued competence – the ability to be ‘emotionally inscrutable’ and to mask one’s true feelings about a given subject.
    The interesting point is that some people clearly find it easier to surface act – i.e. they pay a lower personal price for masking – than others, who can suffer distress, exhaustion or even burn out. And those people who can mask, I would suggest, tend to be disproportionately rewarded. I have no hard data or evidence for this assertion, but over 20 years of business consulting tell me that’s the case.
    The really key question is why we value masking so highly, and what it says about our culture that we disproportionally reward people who can do it with relative ease…

  5. Hi Mark

    In some senses there is nothing new under the sun, it's when an insight is applied to another field that we grow our understanding. That's what seems to be happening here, where the very functional literature on meetings is starting to expand to consider emotional aspects that may be well described in another area of psychology. Agree that there are problems with emotional expression, including but not limited to Western working culture, that we are only starting to untangle.

    Jerry, agreed, there are perverse incentives within organisations to shield emotions, and what this work (and other work on emotional labour and surface acting) are doing is to help unearth the tensions and contradictions, as well as the long-term consequences, which are invariably negative.


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