When Cheerless Flight Attendants Offer Cheerful Greetings

Yesterday I came across a when-the-marketing-department-goes-too-far term: branded salutation. In a blog post this week, Annie Murphy Paul, a journalist who focuses on the science behind learning, writes that Walgreens employees have been instructed to complete customer transactions with the branded salutation, “Thank you and be well.” Huh? A Walgreens public relations comment notes the purpose of the script is to align the employee communication with the company’s goals.

Noble thought. That doesn’t work. The branded salutation falls flat because there is another piece of alignment to consider. According to Paul, research indicates that when there is not alignment between the scripts given to employees and how employees are actually feeling, the result is toxic. She says social scientists call this surface acting:

Surface acting is when front line service employees, the ones who interact directly with customers, have to appear cheerful and happy even when they’re not feeling it. This kind of faking is hard work—sociologists call it “emotional labor”—and research shows that it’s often experienced as stressful. It’s psychologically and even physically draining; it can lead to lowered motivation and engagement with work, and ultimately to job burnout.

I suspect surface acting is toxic not just for the employee, but also for the customer.

The customer-facing segment of the travel business is all about hospitality, and hospitality is built around warm welcomes, something not well faked. Here’s an example of a hotel company that “gets” authentic service.

But in the airline business, a large number of customer-facing employees (think flight attendants) have been beaten down by decades of rancorous labor disputes and increasingly exhausting job demands. Yet customers and management expect them to exude warmth and friendliness. (For the record, many do.) United has even built its brand DNA around the friendly skies.

The next time you board a plane, notice which flight attendants standing in the galley and greeting you are surface acting and which truly mean their “Welcome aboard.” I will be feeling more compassion for those who exude surliness, perhaps forced to do the emotional labor of acting cheerful when not.

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