The healthiest way to make friends at work

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According to a recent survey of more than 10,000 adults by health insurance giant Cigna, loneliness is a scourge across the US. About 63% of American men qualify as lonely, and 58% of women.

The workplace has not been spared in this epidemic, of course. The surveys detected feelings of alienation and abandonment during times of high pressure there, even though the vast majority of respondents said they had “good” or better social connections at the office.

Younger employees were more likely to report feelings associated with loneliness in the survey, compared to their Gen X and Boomer colleagues. This probably has something to do with tenure: The longer that respondents held one job, the lower their score on the standardized loneliness scale used by the researchers. Meanwhile, people who agreed that their personal relationships with co-workers were positive were significantly less lonely than those who considered their ties at work to be fair or poor.

All of which raises a question: Is overcoming loneliness at the office mostly a matter of time and hanging in there, planting the seeds of mutual affection and waiting for them to sprout? Or is there something a person can do proactively to cultivate friendships at work and defend against the insidiousness of loneliness?

As it happens, another study released last month hints at a possible solution.

The benefits of “deep acting”

The new research, conducted by Allison Gabriel, an associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona, consisted of a series of surveys designed to determine how respondents (all of whom were working adults) managed their emotions at work. For example, one question asked participants to rank how strongly they agreed with statements like “I fake a good mood when interacting with my co-workers” and “I try to actually experience the emotions that I show to my co-workers.”

Other statements centered on a person’s motivations for behaving a certain way, such as “I want to avoid looking bad in front of my co-workers” or “I am concerned about my co-workers’ feelings.” The survey takers were also asked about the effects of their interactions: Were they left drained at the end of the day? Did they feel they had represented themselves authentically?

After analyzing hundreds of responses, Gabriel and her team determined that when it came to governing their emotions, employees fell into four types:

  • Deep actors: Those who habitually make an attempt to “modify internal emotions to match those required on the job,” as she explains in the paper. Members of this group only rarely “surface act,” or fake the way they’re feeling.
  • Regulators: People who frequently use both surface acting and deep acting strategies with colleagues, with a slight bias toward superficial pretense.
  • Low actors: People who engage in both strategies above, though not consistently.
  • Non-actors: Those who essentially do not regulate their emotions.

Regulators, not surprisingly, reported the lowest levels of wellbeing. They were most likely to feel worn out and inauthentic, according to the survey results, which is consistent with a body of research on emotional labor in the workplace, particularly among employees forced to feign happiness for the sake of maintaining a brand image in front of customers. Constantly faking a good mood is associated with burnout and psychological disorders, including depression.

Deep actors, by contrast, expressed less emotional fatigue and less inauthenticity, compared with the other respondents.

Deep acting is not manipulation, nor is it authenticity

There’s an argument to be made for renaming “deep acting,” which sounds rather Machiavellian. In fact, it’s about synching up your feelings with your values, Gabriel says. With deep acting, “the goal is that it’s going to create this nice alignment. I’m actually going to feel positive and then that’s going to make my positive emotions that I’m displaying to this person more authentic, because they’re matching how I feel.”

Non-acting may be closest to being wholly “authentic,” which isn’t necessarily admirable, she notes.

Sure, at some point, we’re all bound to feel such explosive rage, joy, or sadness, that containment or censoring is out of reach. I would submit that these very real moments can also build goodwill and camaraderie, perhaps for the same reasons we trust people who curse freely. However, constantly indulging your feelings—even those of maniacal happiness—would be a little much for your co-workers. We can all think of someone we’ve worked with like this, says Gabriel; she calls them “authentic jerks.”

Which type are you?

To categorize your own emotional management strategy, consider how you handle those days when you arrive at the office in a dark mood for no reason, Gabriel suggests. Now picture a colleague approaching, smiling, with a bubbly “Good morning!” about to spring from her lips.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have a few choices. You could a) match her enthusiasm with a forced, upbeat greeting; b) release the grunt that’s the truest expression of your internal state; or c) take a deep breath and attempt an emotional reset, with an eye toward establishing the friendly mood you hope to create, and not inflicting your pain on someone else.

“You really do have this choice of ‘Am I just going to fake it through the work day and plaster on a smile, try to be positive with people, but inside I’m still kind of raging or upset? Or am I going to take a step back and really say, ‘Okay, I’m at work now. Why am I here? Why am I interacting with my coworkers? What is the value I can get out of this? Why would I do such a thing?’” says Gabriel.

Arguably, most of us have deep-acted with people we love. Imagine, for instance, that you notice a significant someone in your life is suffering. In that case, your instincts to be supportive and compassionate tend to kick in automatically. But on the occasions when that doesn’t happen, for whatever reason, you might put yourself into the “right” emotional mode by meditating on what that person is experiencing, for the sake of that person’s happiness, your shared bond, and your underlying belief in the purpose and power of relationships. Deep acting with “work friends” is no different, just (typically) less intense.

Deep acting’s trifecta of rewards

The reason deep acting leads to a greater sense of well-being in the employees who practice it appears to be tied up in the motivation for doing it in the first place.

Gabriel’s research found that “regulators” were mostly trying to manage impressions, without any greater goal. Deep actors, on the other hand, were motivated by their natural inclination to have pleasant exchanges at work, and out of genuine appreciation for their colleagues. They were incentivized by prosocial reasons, says Gabriel. “They also just generally liked interacting with their co-workers and were concerned about their co-workers’ feelings,” she said.

This incentive pays off in social capital in the workplace, Gabriel notes, which becomes its own engine for further rewards. Deep actors have friends who will pitch in when one’s workload is heavy, and lend an ear or give feedback when advice is needed. “They indicated that they received more help focused on them as a person, so they just had more people to listen to them to provide them some level of social support and help with their own work tasks,” Gabriel says. “Then, because or in part due to that extra help and support, they’re receiving feedback, so they also said that their work performance was improving. They were making progress on their goals.”

Non-actors said they experienced similarly lower levels of inauthenticity, says Gabriel, but they didn’t reap the extra benefits of deep acting.

Gabriel and her team did not measure loneliness scores for this paper, but she has investigated that gloomy state in separate research about leaders. Her preliminary data on that topic suggests that “when leaders are more helpful to their subordinates, that reduces their feelings of loneliness that day,” says Gabriel. “You could extrapolate those findings and say it’s likely that deep actors, because they are receiving more help, they are building these relationships, maybe they would feel less lonely at work.”