Feeling our way

Feeling our way

Students from UCC’s Work and Organisational Psychology/Behaviour Masters.

By. Dr. Carol Linehan

I heard on the radio this morning that a survey in Irish workplaces identified the top ten phrases that irritate the hell out of people. These included “leave it with me”, “I’ll reach out to him”, “going forward”, and guess what was top of the list?

“Can I borrow you for a minute?”.

Are your teeth set on edge by any of these phrases? Maybe, maybe not. But, if you are annoyed by any of this jargon at work, do you show it? Probably not. You might plaster on a smile, and say “sure, how can I help?” While inwardly quelling irritation at the interruption to your own long long list of to-dos. If that is how you respond then you are, in emotion labour terms, ‘surface acting’. *Note to my colleagues, I’m always genuinely happy to help, ahem.

Of course we manage our emotions, and expressions of emotion, in all spheres of our lives but in the workplace this emotion management is often shaped as much, if not more, by organisational requirements as by personal preference. Arlie Hochschild described this as “emotion management with the profit motive slipped under” and termed it ‘Emotional Labour’. It’s the requirement, for example, for staff in a fast food joint to smile at you, the customer, as they pass you your lunch regardless of whether they are genuinely happy or not to serve you for minimum wage. Offering ‘service with a smile’ has become a widely accepted and expected dimension of most ‘front of stage’ customer service occupations and organisations often explicitly train staff in this aspect of the job role. And the ‘labour’ bit of emotion work comes in when staff have to put effort in to i) either fake emotions they don’t feel to meet expected display requirements (surface act) or ii) trying to actually feel the required emotion in order to align dissonant feelings with the expected display (deep act).

Last Wednesday evening, my colleague Dr Elaine O’Brien and I chose to talk about this aspect of work roles, emotion labour, at the joint event held by the School of Applied Psychology with the Division of Work and Organisational Psychology (DWOP), Psychological Society of Ireland. As Elaine described the kinds of emotional labour that we had uncovered in research with human resource managers, how taboo it still is to talk about emotion in that professional role, and how there is very little, if any, explicit training or support for that challenging aspect of their role, she used the phrase ‘feeling their way’ to describe how individuals try to make sense of, and perform, this aspect of their job. It struck me as a particularly apt phrase to use given that emotion work is largely unacknowledged in HR occupations and so people have to ‘feel their way’ through the complex and often competing emotional displays they are required to perform in their job role.


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Dr. Carol Linehan (centre) with Caroline Conlon (left) and Dr. Eliane O’Brien (right).

‘Feeling our way’ also seemed an apt phrase to describe the whole evening, as this talk was the very first joint event held between our school and the division. So we are working out how we can develop that relationship, engage more with professional work and organisational psychologists, and support our budding professionals i.e. the students on our Masters in Work and Organisational Psychology/Behaviour. On the night, Caroline Conlon (work and organisational psychologist, committee member of DWOP, a member of PSI council, and most importantly a Mallow native) very kindly spoke about embarking on the route to becoming a work and organisational psychologist and introduced the new guidelines for progressing towards full registered membership with DWOP as a Work and Organisational Psychologist.  A huge thanks to Caroline for all her work in co-hosting the event.

And now ‘Can I borrow you for a minute?’