WorkLife with Adam Grant
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(Phone) Stephanie Van Hasselt: Thank you for calling Zappos, my name is Stephanie. How may I help you today?

Adam Grant: One of my least favorite things to do is call customer service. The cable company, my bank, tech support. It takes forever. You get put on hold over and over. How long was your last customer service call?

(Phone) SVH: But at least you'd have your money, and it just depends...

AdG: This call? It started around 9am and it went for 11 hours.

(Phone) SVH: Or you always have the option to exchange it for something else.

AdG: Eleven hours? On the phone? I'm ready to give up after 11 minutes. Can you imagine wasting your whole day on a helpline? What could possibly take that long?

(Phone) SVH: And Chandler's like, "What are you doing?" And he's like, "You said I had to give you the chair —"

AdG: In this case, Stephanie and her customer spent the whole day talking about TV.

(Phone) Woman: That's by far my favorite episode.

AdG: And pizza, and travel and their pets. Stephanie resolved the customer's issue in 15 minutes. But they just kept talking. Here's Stephanie coming up on hour number eight.

(Phone) SVH: I didn't think I was this much of a chatterbox, my dad would always tell me that I never shut up, but I didn't realize I like to talk this much, until I started working here.

AdG: And the 10-hour mark.

(Phone) SVH: I'm pretty sure, before I get off the phone, I can show you a picture of my cat so you can see how chunky he is ...

AdG: Stephanie set a company record for the longest customer call ever at Zappos. And I'd wager, one of the longest ever anywhere.

(Phone) SVH: Thank you so much for being amazing and I hope you guys enjoy your extremely late dinner.


AdG: Customer service calls are so often about dealing with people's negative emotions. But Stephanie turned a mundane call into a source of positive emotions. And that is ridiculously hard work.


I'm Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with TED. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, I'm inviting myself in to some truly unusual places, where they've mastered something I wish everyone knew about work. Today: emotional work and how to avoid burnout.


Thanks to Accenture for sponsoring this episode.


We all have to manage our own emotions in our jobs. Think of a time you were really annoyed by a colleague, but masked your feelings so you could get the job done. Or when you marched into your boss's office to ask for a raise, but kept your cool so you could negotiate. At work, we also manage other people's emotions. Whether inspiring a team about a boring project or talking your frustrated colleague out of quitting. And in some jobs, managing emotions is the job. In the US and many developed economies around the world, about eight out of 10 people work in service jobs. The human touch is hard to automate. We want an actual person on the other end of the line. And even if you're not in one of those jobs, you're engaged in a service encounter every time you get a haircut, visit the doctor or order a coffee. Every one of those service jobs has expectations about what emotions to show. Here's Stephanie Van Hasselt of Zappos. You heard her in that crazy long phone call.

SVH: I don't know, I guess in a weird way, I find talking to my customers kind of therapeutic.


If I'm having a great day, I want to share that joy with them or if I'm having a rough day, it's a way for me to get away from the roughness and vent in a fun way ...

AdG: Clearly. I don't know that many people who call in to customer service, thinking, "Yeah, I've got 10 or 11 hours free, let me make this into a friendship here."

SVH: Honestly, it was the New York accent. Once I heard it, you know, I mentioned that I grew up in New York, and she was actually in the process of making pizza for lunch for her son and daughter. And of course, me being a New Yorker, I was like, man I really miss that pizza.


So we started talking about food, I mean, I remember her fiancé kept coming back into the apartment and was like, "You're still on the phone?" And she'd start laughing, she was like, "Yeah, I'm talking to Stephanie."

AdG: At Zappos, they actually encourage this kind of personal connection. But many workplaces don't create the space for genuine emotional expression. Think about your job. You probably had moments when you just faked an emotion. You plastered on a smile, you tried to sound cheerful even when you weren't feeling it.

Alicia Grandey: I always think of the flight attendants that have to say goodbye to each and every passenger that leaves the plane. "Goodbye now! Goodbye now!"

AdG: This is Alicia Grandey, an industrial organizational psychologist at Penn State. She studies how people manage emotions. Something she got a real taste of early on, when she worked at Starbucks.

AlG: I would find myself — despite being somewhat, you know, enjoying people and sociable — completely exhausted after a part-time shift at Starbucks, being the barista, and I didn't really understand why. My face would hurt. Like, it would literally hurt from all the interacting and the smiling and the emotional labor I was doing, but I didn't know that's what it was called. And at the same time, I took this class, just for fun, where I was assigned to read the classic "Managed Heart" by Arlie Hochschild. And that's when the light bulbs went off and I was like, "Ah, I'm doing emotional labor."

AdG: What is emotional labor?

AlG: It's kind of like when you get a gift and you don't really like it, and you have to still kind of smile and act nice, because otherwise, your aunt Bernadette would be offended, but you have to do that all day long. And not only that, but it's explicitly part of your job, it's tied to your wages and outcomes, and if you don't do it, there are consequences, like, you could loose your job or you could get in trouble. And it's with strangers, for the most part.

AdG: It seems like the easiest way to cope is to tell yourself, "Well, this is just my job. I'll pretend to be this person in this role when I'm at work." That's called surface acting. It's wearing a mask that you take off at the end of the day. It feels like the simple way to distance yourself from the role. But it creates a sense of being inauthentic, which can take a real toll.

AlG: I had the experience, while working at Starbucks, of a customer saying something inappropriate. And then you have this feeling within you of like, but I'm supposed to be friendly and nice. And yet inside, I'm really upset. I've got dissonance between my feelings and what I'm supposed to show. And so you just put on that expression, you have to hide or push down the feelings you're actually having, and just get through that situation. The problem is when you're engaging in that surface acting repeatedly. Doing it one time with your aunt Bernadette might not be a big deal. But doing it constantly with customers over and over again, because you're always dealing with customers who are upset or patients who are upset ... Having to do that constantly is where we see the problem.

AdG: The problem is burnout. Sure, it's exhausting to deal with rude customers all day. But how exhausting, depends on the way you approach emotional labor. There's substantial evidence that people who do a lot of surface acting end up feeling more emotionally drained and stressed.

AlG: The more we surface act, the more we're likely to drink. It also is linked to not helping out as much at home, because you're exhausted. So, there's a lot of potential downsides.

AdG: But there's an alternative to surface acting — deep acting. Instead of putting on a mask, you actually try to feel the emotion. That way, it comes out naturally.

AlG: Deep acing is just the modifying of your own feelings to appear in the way that you're expected to appear.

AdG: So it sounds like you're saying, instead of faking it till you make it, feel it so you don't have to fake it.

AlG: Yeah, so there's certainly evidence to support that if you can try to feel it, then you won't need to fake it, and that there's less cost to feeling it. Where deep acting does seem to have more benefits in terms of how you appear, how you come across to others, and fewer costs to the self.


AdG: If you want to master deep acting, you can probably learn something from someone who does it for a living. On stage.

John Lithgow: It's truly agonizing, when you're acting in a bad play, because you have to go out and do it, whether it works or not.

AdG: You might recognize this voice.

JL: Oh yeah, this is John Lithgow, ready to talk about work. I'm an actor and the interesting thing about me as an actor is that I act in movies, TV, plays and musicals, tragedy and farce, and I even do stuff outside the acting game, entertaining children and writing kids' books. I'm sort of all over the place. Mainly because I'm always afraid that nobody will ever hire me to act.

AdG: That hasn't been a problem. Two Tony awards, two Golden Globes, six Emmys and two Oscar nominations. John starred in the popular sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun." And he recently won an Emmy for playing Winston Churchill on the Netflix series, "The Crown." In many of your roles, you get to invent the character, since they're not real, but here, you're playing somebody extremely famous. So how did you get into the role and really feel what it was like to be Churchill?

JL: Churchill was a wonderful adventure, it's one of my favorite jobs ever. Very unlooked for and unexpected. I felt that I was so extremely different from Winston Churchill that that was almost liberating. It's like, I wasn't fooling anybody, I'm not going to be a precise imitation of Winston Churchill. So, I could go after what I sensed to be the essence of the man, the spirit of the man and his emotional life, and just make that the center of the performance.

AdG: Surface acting would be mimicking Churchill's public persona. But John went deep to understand the emotional roots of Churchill's character.

JL: I was fascinated by his childhood. What a neglected, unhappy, failure of a child he was. It helped me, sort of, look at his entire life in terms of how he dealt with that, how he compensated for it, how he overcame it. It's the source of both his tremendous courage and his insecurity. That's how I approached it, in a sense it's the way I approach every character.

AdG: As much effort as that involves on a screen, John finds it even more intensive in live theater. You have to convincingly channel the character's emotions, night after night.

JL: Working on a performance for the theater, for one thing, you've rehearsed for four or five weeks. And it's like polishing a gem stone, you're working it to the point where you can repeat it over and over again and create the illusion of the first time every time you do it. Well, you act in film, and all you have to do is get it the first time.

AdG: John doesn't just do emotional labor during performances. He does it between scenes, too.

JL: There's a beautiful episode of "The Crown" where the painter Graham Sutherland paints Churchill, and long, sustained scenes, where I have to sit for the painting and have this intermittent, halting conversation with the painter. Well, the painter was played by Stephen Dillane, one of the best actors I've ever worked with, and he's a fantastic actor to work with, but he's not an easy actor to work with. Because he's very ... He looks very inward, he waits and waits until things are right, and he broods, and you end up feeling, "What's the matter here, does he not like me?" You know, he can make you quite insecure.

AdG: So John looked for ways to make a personal connection. You can almost imagine him on an 11-hour phone call.

JL: There came a moment when I revealed to Stephen that I had become a huge fan of English Premier League soccer. And at that point he opened up like a flower. By the end of that ... You know, suddenly there was this animated conversation between us, there was this wonderful connection.

AdG: But sometimes, genuine enthusiasm just doesn't get reciprocated.

JL: I remember working on "3rd Rock from the Sun." We had a guest actor who was famously difficult to work with. A big, big star, but temper tantrums and egotistical behavior. And sure enough, it was impossible. I did everything I could to accommodate this person — this person did a perfectly OK job — we were extremely glad when it was all over. And I heard later that she had commented on the experience of "3rd Rock" and had said about me, "Well, he's awfully needy." She was used to tyrannizing everybody. And my response to that was, "Let's at least make this a bearable experience for everybody else on the crew and in the cast."


AdG: I found, in my research, that when we focus on the people who benefit from our work, it energizes us. Firefighters, fundraisers and government employees were all less likely to burn out when they saw how their jobs helped others. Even keeping a daily journal about how you contribute to others is enough to boost your effort. Creating a positive outcome for customers makes the experience less negative for us. Or at least gives us a reason to put up with the stress. The way John makes is bearable is to focus on his customer — the audience.

JL: When you delight an audience, it inflates you. But you have to think of it in terms of what you're giving to them, not what they're giving to you.

AdG: I'm wondering if you could describe the sensation of, you know, that moment when you know you've really gotten into the role. What does that feel like?

JL: Mainly, you know it because you've had the experience of it not going well. The audience tells you an enormous amount. Just the sound of an audience. People cough and shift in their seats if they're bored. You become a connoisseur of silence. I also entertain little children. And when you get an entire huge audience of children — dead silence, listening and waiting and giving you all their attention — it's working. So, you know, what the hell, just go out there and act. See what happens.


AdG: Just like acting, service work often involves following a script. But there's a time and place to throw the script out the window. More on that after the break.

OK, this is going to be a different kind of ad. I played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast. Because they all have interesting cultures of their own. Today, we're going inside the workplace at Accenture. Last week, I told you the story of Darnel Thompson and Ellyn Shook at Accenture. Darnel works in IT, and he had written a Facebook post about the police shootings of unarmed black men. Ellyn saw it and immediately called to see how he was doing.

Darnel Thompson: And I said, Ellyn, I am between a state of rage and panic.

Ellyn Shook: He was coming to work and nobody was talking about what was happening.

AdG: Ellyn is the Chief Leadership and HR officer at Accenture. After talking with Darnel, she decided to take action.

ES: It was that moment that "Building Bridges" was born.

AdG: Ellyn, together with Julie Sweet, Accenture's North America CEO, hosted a live Webcast.

(Phone) Julie Sweet: Today is a special town hall. It is about the difficult issues that we are facing as a country, around race.

AdG: They called it "Building Bridges," an open dialogue on diversity.

ES: And we just had an open conversation with our people about how they were feeling.

AdG: The Webcast connected more than 1,000 Accenture employees from across the country. It lasted for over an hour. People talked about racism in their everyday lives and they talked about how race affects them at work.

ES: We heard a story about a man who travels every week for work and he always gets pulled out of the security line and he holds up his other group of colleagues.

DT: They were very real. You know, it's like, there are other humans and they feel, too. This is amazing. And by the end of the meeting I had a new respect for this company that I work for.

AdG: Darnel didn't think this kind of openness was possible at work. But this wasn't where it ended. It was just getting started.

ES: The different feelings that people were having said to me something very serious that we needed to be paying attention to all of our people and if we didn't convene difficult conversations like that at work, it was becoming a workplace issue, because people's productivity was certainly not at their peak when they were masking how they were feeling, coming to work every single day.

AdG: Today, anyone can convene a "Building Bridges" meeting, on anything from sexual discrimination to politics, to religion. Dan Eckstein is a senior manager at Accenture and organized an employee-led inter-faith group.

Dan Eckstein: We did a Diwali dinner, we did a Ramadan iftar meal. By talking about faith, our employees are able to now express themselves in a different way and find meaning in the work that they're doing in a way that they never were able to before.

AdG: There are "Building Bridges" conversations across all faiths and they include atheists and non-believers, too.

ES: So it's now become a normal part of how we bring people together around a conversation.

AdG: Are there any topics that have been rejected?

ES: No.

AdG: But there are ground rules. You make sure that everyone feels like they can participate. And listening is just as important as talking. And if you're wading into a conversation that makes you nervous, or you don't know much about it ...

ES: Just ask an expert to show up with you. Whether it's a faith leader or a race leader or whatever it is, just ask an expert, because there are many, many people who are willing to come and help shape conversation and we should not be shy to ask for help.

AdG: You no longer have to be one person at home, and another at work. It's even built stronger relationships between colleagues at Accenture. Like Darnel and Ellyn.

ES: Through this whole conversation we've become even closer, because I think Darnel started to see me as a human being in a different way, as well.

AdG: And Ellyn has become a bigger part of Darnel's life.

DT: And now she is the godmother of our five-month-old.

AdG: That's amazing. Accenture is working to be one of the most truly human companies in the digital age. Learn more at

Actors aren't the only ones who follow scripts. We all have scripts that we follow in everyday life. They're the expected behaviors in a given situation. There's a script for how to handle a first date, a job interview, even for Thanksgiving dinner with your in-laws. And the scripts are often different depending on your gender, race, culture and age. Scripts exist because they're efficient. They save us the mental effort of having to decide how to act in every situation. We can lean on them in tough moments, which means we use less of our own emotional energy and are better able to avoid burning out. So many workplaces hand you a script. "This is the person you have to be in order to work for us." But that kind of script is often an excuse to surface act or wear the mask someone else gives you. Which is why you get people blandly answering the phone on a customer service call. Or the kind of situation on an airplane that Alicia, the Penn State psychologist we met earlier, pointed out.

AlG: Goodbye! Goodbye now! Goodbye now!

AdG: Last month, I was on a flight home from Atlanta. I was answering some emails, when the flight attendants started into the routine announcements.

Josh Bradley: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, I was just informed by the rear flight attendant, it seems as though someone dropped a wig in the center aisle.

AdG: OK, that was not routine. I was like, "Did he just say a wig? Like, a toupee?" Everyone jolted up and looked at the guy in the front of the plane.

JB: Alright, now that I have your attention, my name is Josh, I will be your flight leader on today's flight. If you can go ahead and direct that same attention to the aisleway when you thought someone dropped their wig in the aisle, I'll go ahead and show you a brief safety demonstration.

AdG: We all burst out laughing. From there, Josh peppered the trip with a one-man comedy show.

JB: Ladies and gentleman, at this time, the cabin lighting is going to be dimmed, not only to enhance the beauty of the person sitting next to you, but as flight attendants, when we walk the aisle ...

AdG: At first, passengers were amused. But by the middle of the flight, I noticed a change around me. People were smiling more, they looked more relaxed. The mood on the plane had elevated.

JB: Ladies and gentlemen, if you can go ahead and check around your seat for any items you may wish to discard. I do apologize, but we won't be collecting any spouses nor children nor in-laws at this time. But we will collect the remaining service items you may wish to discard.

AdG: Scripts often stand in the way of making an emotional connection. But our flight attendant had turned this robotic experience into something very human. His name is Josh Bradley. For his first few months on the job, he stuck to the script.

JB: I memorized the script. It became so monotonous to where the other flight attendant, she told me, she said, "Just be yourself." She was like, "You're great. You're a people person. Just be yourself." And I was like, "You know what? OK. I'll do some comedy on the plane."

AdG: Did you get any pushback? Have you ever had somebody say, "Hey, you've got to stick to the script?"

JB: I have gotten some pushback from some people that says, you know, "It's not a joking environment." But I've had high-ranking officials that are my boss's boss, on flights, and I did my jokes and stuff, and they applauded me and they really liked it. Like I tell people all the time, I don't mind the fact that you stick to the policies and procedures but when you come to engaging with people, just know that there's no scripted response for that.

AdG: So Josh follows his own script.

JB: I am an emotional actor any time that I am at work. So when I don the uniform, I become that brand. I do dive into the role of the person on the other side to engage with them and try to make their day a little bit better than what it was. So, when someone tells me, "You have a good day," I say, "You have a better one."

AdG: It's obvious that your mood affects customers. What you might not realize is that your mood also affects your own ability to solve problems. In one experiment, psychologists randomly assigned some doctors to receive a bag of candy before evaluating a patient's symptoms. Remarkably, they diagnosed the disease faster. It wasn't the candy. They didn't even open the bag. It was the positive mood from the unexpected gift. The emotional uplift helped doctors see connections between different pieces of information about the patient. In Josh's line of work, staying in a positive mood isn't always easy.

JB: Yeah, throughout the flight, you will have some customers that are rude.

AdG: So Josh turns to deep acting. He works to feel the emotions he wants to display.

JB: The best approach is to be able to listen to them, because if they're being rude or obnoxious, it's for some type of underlying reason that is no fault of your own.

AdG: That's a deep acting strategy called reappraising. It's just reframing the situation. You might take the customer's perspective and think about what caused them to act that way.

JB: I just learned that everybody is always going through something.

AdG: The other key technique of deep acting is refocusing. Drawing your attention to things that lift your mood, like the purpose of your job, which can make the stress worth it. Or something that transports you away from the stress altogether.

JB: I actually, before the flight, if it's been a totally long and stressful day, I'll go ahead and put my earbuds in and I will turn on some music and I will get in that zone and then I'm good to go.

AdG: Once Josh gets in that zone, he's able to manage the emotions of an entire flight full of passengers.

JB: I'm at the boarding door and I'm greeting people. And if you come on with a frown, I'm going to say something to you to make you laugh and change that frown into a smile due to the fact that I just want positive energy on my flight. So it makes me feel good to know that I'm making them feel good and feel comfortable and like I'm inviting them into my home.

AdG: At some point in your life, you've probably met a service professional like Josh, who has a real gift for making you feel at home. Great service cultures make this kind of hospitality the norm. They try to deliver it in every interaction. And I want to know how.

Danny Meyer: When Union Square Cafe opened in 1985 and I was 27, at that point I had worked for a total of one year in restaurants.

AdG: This is Danny Meyer, a renowned restaurateur.

DM: I had a year of experience and so I didn't really understand the business very well, but the one thing I did understand is that it mattered to me deeply how people felt. In fact, part of our gift was that we were so bad at actually getting the food and drink to the table in a timely manner that I had to triple down on other things, like relationship.

AdG: Danny runs Union Square Hospitality Group. They have more than a dozen acclaimed restaurants in New York City. He's also the founder and chairman of Shake Shack, a national burger chain with hundreds of outlets. Danny's not just known for the food he serves, but for the hospitality culture he builds. He can't coach every employee or greet every customer. So how does the staff of thousands keep up the commitment to great service?

DM: If you really, really want to have the best customer experience, put your customer second.

AdG: Wait, you want to put your customer second, even though...

DM: Put our employees first.

AdG: Why?

DM: We believe that our customers will never measurably be happier than the people working there. Soon enough, you will taste the morale of our restaurant on your plate.

AdG: In customer-first cultures, people do a lot of surface acting. They feign emotions to complete a transaction. In the 1970s, there was a whole study about how Disney was a "smile factory," where actors were basically forced to entertain guests. Employees had to put on a mask. The rules were coercive and constraining. The script was full of red tape. A good script is empowering and enabling. It tells you what you can do, not just what you can't. Which is the goal at Danny's restaurants.

DM: You know, I've asked that same stupid question of actors before, which is, "How can you keep putting on the same play every single night?" What they will tell you is what I would say, is that every single night the audience is different and therefore the dialogue is different. And I kind of feel like that's us at our best in the restaurant business as well. Which is, there's all these amazing moments where we can improvise and customize the experience for how you feel or how we think you feel, who you're dining with, what are you trying to accomplish at this meal.

AdG: A lot of people worry that caring is exhausting. We talk about caregiver burnout or compassion fatigue in healthcare. But the evidence shows it's not caring that drives exhaustion. It's caring while being unable to help. So the best scripts are the ones that help you help without forcing you to put on a mask. Research shows that the organizations with the happiest customers are actually the ones that put employees first. They value relationships inside the workplace not just outside with the public. Because the emotions people experience on the job have a huge impact on the customer's experience. When employees are treated well, they naturally treat the customer well. It's not acting. They really care.

DM: What I've learned is that in any organization, every one of us is like a little canoe, or I should say speedboat, in some cases, traveling through the water, leaving a wake in our path. And that wake is part of our empathy because the wake is having an impact on every other boat in the water. It might even be having an impact on the docks along the shore. And if that boat is a person in the organization and they care to make sure that that wake makes the other people feel better, that's such a huge difference than the preponderance of people who are neither aware and nor do they care.

AdG: When Danny hires someone, he wants to know how much attention they pay to their wake. Whether that's the kind of emotional labor they're likely to make their colleagues deal with, or how much they'll go out of their way to engage deeply with each dining guest. This is such a crucial insight that Danny has come up with some interview questions that try to capture that quality.

DM: One of my favorites is one that I've learned from one of my business partners, Richard Coraine, and that is, he'll ask somebody, what is the greatest misperception other people have about you and who you are?

AdG: I like that, because it forces you to be not just aware of other people, but aware of the thoughts they have about you.

DM: That's exactly right. And so implicit in that question is, you're aware of your wake — or not. You're either aware of what your wake is doing to people or for people, but you're also aware of how, sometimes, the wake you intend to leave is not the wake that's being perceived.


AdG: Emotional work is undervalued. In a world where many jobs can be automated or outsourced, care and communication skills are becoming more vital than ever before. So every time you're on the other side of a service interaction, remember that the whole emotional burden doesn't have to be on the provider. Emotional labor is hard work, and it deserves empathy. Every time you act like a jerk, you're making someone else's job more difficult. And that's going to spill over to affect every other customer that day. It may be their job to help us, but there's usually something we can do to help them. It's always wise to pay attention to the wake you create.


WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media and Pineapple Street Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Gabrielle Lewis, Angela Cheng and Janet Lee. This episode was produced by Dan O'Donnell. Our show is mixed by David Herman with help from Dan Dzula. Original music by Hahnsdale Hsu. Special thanks to our sponsors: Accenture, Bonobos, JPMorgan Chase and Warby Parker.

On April 24, we're taping an episode of WorkLife in New York, at the 92nd Street Y. I'll be onstage with Malcolm Gladwell for a fire-side chat about all things work. And we're going to answer questions from you. If there's something you're curious about, you can submit a question by email or voice mail. Check out the show description for details.

Next time on WorkLife: jobs without bosses.

Woman: I don't want to be bossed around. Wouldn't most people say that?

AdG: That's next time on WorkLife. Thanks for listening. If you liked what you heard, rate and review the show. It helps people find us. See you next week.

AlG: Goodbye! Goodbye now! Goodbye now!