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Poker face puts squeeze on productivity

Service without a smile is usually not well-received by a customer. Turns out, it’s not good for the service provider, either.

According to a recent study by a Christine Jackson, an associate professor of management at the Krannert School, and two colleagues, John Trougakos from the University of Toronto and Daniel Beal from Rice University, displaying a neutral demeanor often takes resources away from providers in certain fields, making it difficult for them to complete their tasks.

"Service providers like judges, lawyers, healthcare providers, police officers, pollsters, and journalists are expected to keep their emotions in check while they work," Jackson says. "The effort these service providers expend to suppress the expression of their emotions, both positive and negative, leaves them with fewer resources to perform their tasks."

"In addition, customers tend to perceive them and their organizations less favorably than service providers who only have to suppress the expression of negative emotions."

The study, which is being published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, is one of the latest explorations in the field of emotional labor, a specialty of Trougakos and Beal. Both have Purdue connections. Trougakos earned his doctorate from the Krannert School in 2006, and Beal was a senior research associate with Purdue’s Military Family Research Institute from 2000-04.

The trio performed the study with two sets of pollsters. One group was instructed to maintain a neutral countenance with respondents, while the other group was instructed to be positive in its expressions toward respondents. The neutral group was found to be less persistent and was rated lower on service quality, and in some cases tried to avoid customers altogether.

So what can people in the so-called "neutral" fields do to be more productive and avoid burnout?

"In some cases, they can reframe situations to remind themselves of the importance of their jobs, and in the case of pollsters, their need to be impartial and unbiased," Jackson says. "They also need to take breaks to replenish their resources. It’s important that when they take those breaks, they get completely away from their jobs and do something unrelated."

Jackson joined the Purdue faculty in 2004. She received a Teaching for Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 2006 and the Jay Ross Young Faculty Scholarship Award in 2007.