Your Poker Face Can Cost You at Work

poker face No matter what Lady Gaga says, a poker face can actually be a detriment to your work.

An international study recently found that workers who must avoid appearing either overly positive or negative -- such as journalists, health care professionals, social workers, lawyers, judges and law enforcement officers, have to spend so much time and effort showing no emotion that they have less energy to devote to the work at hand.

That's according to new research from Rice University, the University of Toronto, and Purdue University.

"Our study shows that emotion suppression takes a toll on people," said Daniel Beal, assistant professor of psychology at Rice and co-author of the study. "It takes energy to suppress emotions, so it's not surprising that workers who must remain neutral are often more rundown or show greater levels of burnout.

The Downside of Too Much Control

"The more energy you spend controlling your emotions, the less energy you have to devote to the task at hand." Not only that, but your neutrality can influence both co-workers and customers to think less of you. Researchers noticed that customers who interacted with a neutrally expressive employee were in less-positive moods and, in turn, gave lower ratings of service quality, and held less-positive attitudes toward the employee's organization.

The findings suggest that even though neutrality in such jobs is required for a number of reasons -- to maintain trust, to keep a situation calm, and in order not to influence the actions of others -- it may not result in a particularly positive reaction from others.

"When an employee is positive, it transfers to the client or customer they're working with," Beal said. "Because of that good mood, the client or customer then would rate the organization better. But if an employee is maintaining a neutral demeanor, you don't have those good feelings transferred. If an organization's goal is to be unbiased, then that may trump any desire the organization has to be well-liked."

How the Discoveries Were Made

These discoveries were found by training participants to perform as "poll workers" in two different situations. In one, the training emphasized being positive to provide a good impression of the organization sponsoring the survey.

In the other, the training emphasized being neutral so as not to bias the feedback of survey respondents. The results supported the idea that neutral displays require greater emotional suppression, and that this greater suppression led to less persistence at the surveying task as well as a greater avoidance of potential survey respondents.

The study, "Service Without a Smile: Comparing the Consequences of Neutral and Positive Display Rules," will be published in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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