Why emotional engagement helps frontline employee performance

March 6, 2017 - 5 minute read

Frontline employees need to be able to express their emotions to their coworkers and manager. If they can’t share thoughts and feelings, the level of their customer service is seriously affected. This is concluded in the scientific research report “Staying engaged on the job: The role of emotional labor, job resources, and customer orientation", recently published by the European Journal of Marketing.

Scientists Nwamaka A. Anaza , Edward L. Nowlin and Gavin Jiayun Wu investigated ‘surface acting’ expressed by frontline workers. Surface acting refers to employees who clearly act they are interested in helping a customer: in the meantime, they actually feel disengaged.

Surface acting is the opposite of ‘deep acting’, which refers to frontline employees able to modify their emotions so that the expressions they show on the outside completely matches their sentiment on the inside.

“Compared to deep acting, surface acting undermines frontline employee customer focus”, the scientists write. “Faking appropriate professional emotional expressions does not translate into enhanced professional behavior, such as an improved customer focus.”(....) “When deep acting, frontline employees feel the appropriate feelings, which may help them focus more on customers’ needs. In other words, deep acting does not harm customer focus but increases their customer focus.”

So, surface acting is a serious problem, as providing superior customer service is often vital to the economic health and long-term success of a company.

The importance of an emotional network

Where does surface acting come from? The researchers concluded it is a result of a lack of possibilities to engage with their co-workers and a mentoring manager. They emphasized the importance of the existence of an interpersonal network within the company.

“Expressive emotional network resources address the interpersonal relationships with others at work that provides an avenue to express feelings and concerns.”

An internal emotional network would provide direct access to information and emotional support to improve customer orientation, the researchers state. In many ways, this appears to be important for frontline employee performances. The researchers point to the following reasons:

1. An internal network provides emotional support

Direct customer interaction can be quite challenging for frontline employees because they continuously deal with customer demands and complaints. Patience, care and focus are required to provide high-quality customer service, to be able to cope with challenging interactions. The researchers see that a network of coworkers facilitate these requirements:

“The frontline employee can depend upon emotional support and professional or personal discussion allows frontline employees to have better customer focus. The implication of the finding is that a network of peers provides emotional and professional support, which enables the frontline employee to more effectively perform their primary job – taking care of the customer.”

2. An internal network helps dealing with stress

This is a scientific learning the researchers referred to within their report. Coworker support provides greater job resources to deal with stressful and difficult customers (Bakker et al., 2005; Tsai et al., 2007).

3. An internal network boosts job satisfaction, productivity and well-being

Also this learning is based on research (Hodson, 1997) that is mentioned by the report discussed in this article, “Staying engaged on the job: The role of emotional labor, job resources, and customer orientation”.

4. An internal network has the potential to motivate frontline employees

The last referral to other research (Liaw et al., 2010) the scientists make in their report, shows that an expressive emotional network can motivate frontliners in meeting customer needs and solving customer problems.

Establishing an internal emotional network

So how do we get there? How do we establish an internal emotional network, or so to say ‘an expressive emotional network’, as the researchers call it? The researchers express three rules to follow:

1. Facilitate a network of mentors

“Mentors provide technical and emotional support, translating into higher levels of job capabilities like customer orientation. It could also be that receiving mentoring makes employees aware of the potential for promotion and that the path to promotion and other rewards is through focusing on and meeting customer needs. The mentor also provides guidance and understanding, which wouldn’t only help employees with their performance but could help them understand link between their performance and the firm’s overall ability to achieve its strategic goals.”

2. Facilitate a network of coworkers

“Coworkers enable frontline employees to deal with the immediate challenges of their job. The network of coworkers becomes a source that allows them to blow off steam from dealing with an extremely difficult customer as well as to learn how to handle customer demands more effectively. Given these findings, the best option for managers is to establish a mentoring system to ensure that all of the frontline employees have mentors.”

3. Don’t tell frontline employees to act happy and attentive

“This will decrease employees’ ability to focus on the customer. In other words, telling them to surface act will not result in a good show. In fact, it might even result in the customer being less than satisfied with the experience because of the employee’s lack of focus on customer needs and wants.”

4. Encouraging frontline employees to feel authentic or genuine emotions

“Deep acting is effective in increasing employee customer orientation. At the very least, it will not decrease or in any way undermine frontline employee customer focus.”

Engaging non-desk employees
Bas van Essen

Written by Bas van Essen

Bas was Speakap's first marketing manager. He enjoyed gaining a lot of scientific insights about the value and impact of internal communications.