How Emotional Display Rules Affect Employees

Topic(s): job performance, training
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2011)
Article: Service Without a Smile: Comparing the Consequences of Neutral and Positive Display Rules
Authors: J.P. Trougakos, C.L. Jackson, D.J. Beal
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

Sometimes jobs require employees to convey specific emotions. For example, a funeral director needs to appear somber, a police officer must appear neutral, and a restaurant server needs to look cheerful. The guidelines that determine which facial expressions an employee needs to maintain are called display rules. In order to maintain a specific demeanor on a continual basis, employees must engage in something called emotional labor.


Researchers (Trougakos et al., 2011) performed an experiment that trained poll workers to conduct surveys displaying either happy or neutral emotions. Results indicated that neutral display rules cause employees to suppress more emotions (both positive and negative). Suppression of emotion requires more emotional labor, which may lead to decreased job performance. Specifically, the poll workers instructed to remain neutral were less persistent in their recruitment of survey-takers and more likely to avoid potential survey-takers, even as they passed right in front of them.

Poll workers trained to display positive emotions were successful in influencing the mood of the people taking the surveys. These survey respondents were more likely to have favorable attitudes regarding the poll workers and the organizations represented by the poll workers.


So if neutral display rules are emotionally taxing to the point of decreased job performance and positive display rules make everybody feel warm and happy, does this mean all jobs should require constant smiling? Not necessarily. Some jobs carry deep-rooted expectations that preclude too much smiling, such as emergency room doctors and courtroom judges.

And even when smiling does seem possible, it isn’t always the best strategy. For example, the poll workers in the study inspired favorable judgments when appearing cheerful, but the authors note that this creates an inherent bias in the survey data they are collecting. If an organization is truly interested in public opinion, neutral-display poll workers are most useful.


So what can organizations who require neutral display rules do to limit the negative side effects? The authors suggest three things. First, they note that negative outcomes seem to only stem from suppressing emotions, but there are other ways a person can remain neutral besides for emotional suppression. For example, reappraisal, or focusing on elements that will more naturally bring about the desired emotion, may also be a valuable strategy that does not require as much difficult emotional labor.

Second, employees should take breaks where they are encouraged to express natural emotions. The authors say that work breaks where employees remain “in character” are inadequate in providing necessary emotional respite.

Finally, the authors emphasize the importance of increased intrinsic motivation in counterbalancing emotional labor. Employees, they say, should be encouraged to consider the virtues and significance of their jobs, which tapers the negative effects of strenuously keeping a straight face.


Trougakos, J.P, Jackson, C.L., & Beal, D.J. (2011). Service Without a Smile: Comparing the Consequences of Neutral and Positive Display Rules. Journal of Applied Psychology96(2), 360-362.