Recognising Emotions: A superpower in the service industry’s arsenal

It turns out that being disagreeable and having poor cognitive ability may not be as bad as the service industry imagines. Prof. Lorna Doucet from School of Management Fudan University unravels the mystery of emotional intelligence.

By CoBS Editor Tanvi Rakesh. Related research: Doucet, L., Shao, B., Wang, L. and Oldham, G. (2016), “I know how you feel, but it does not always help: Integrating emotion recognition, agreeableness, and cognitive ability in a compensatory model of service performance”, Journal of Service Management, Vol. 27 No. 3, pp. 320-338.

Catastrophic or not?

A waiter who can’t easily memorize the menu, the customer care executive who isn’t naturally friendly, the barista who may struggle with complicated orders, the receptionist who feels very at ease in conflicts: what do they have in common? Well, for one they all seem to make for perfect recipes for disaster, incompetence, or even termination. However, what on the surface may seem like an inability to perform the job, may not necessarily be so.

Emotion-recognition: a saviour

Agreeableness and intelligence are considered to be the two implicit tenets of the service industry. All the same, Prof. Doucet’s research shows that the lack of cognitive ability or agreeableness may not necessarily prove to be a hindrance in the service industry. Employees low on agreeableness or cognitive ability may compensate for this deficit by having another superpower – the ability to recognise emotions. Considered as the ability to accurately decode others’ expressions of emotions through non-verbal cues, emotion-recognition is considered as a unique dimension of emotional intelligence. Anecdotal evidence had suggested that those skilled in the art of recognising emotions tend to be better executives, diplomats, teachers and negotiators. Research supports this view by showing that emotion-recognition accuracy enhances leadership and negotiation effectiveness. Prof. Doucet’s research shows that this also extends to employees engaged in a service context.

The service employee’s resume

Customers are likely to be satisfied when they are treated well and when their problems are solved. Broadly speaking, there are two aspects to service interactions: first, a relational or ‘human-contact’ aspect and second, a technical aspect, which concerns service employees’ ability to solve customer problems. As a result, employers in the service industry end up hunting for two qualities. First, employers look for an agreeable personality, this permits employees to carry out the relational part of the job, have a pleasant and friendly disposition which puts the customer at ease, and which may even sow the seeds for a future relationship. Second, employers look for cognitive ability or the ability to solve problems, which deals with the technical aspect of their job. Thus, service employees are expected to excel in both the relational and the technical aspects to guarantee customer satisfaction. While weight is also placed on the customer’s emotions – considered crucial in defining a service interaction – little has been said about the employee’s emotions or their ability to read them. As is commonly acknowledged, the ability to recognise emotions is not truly considered in the hiring or training of service employees, since evidence to prove this skill’s worthiness is scarce. Prof. Doucet helps us out with this dilemma. Her research indicates that although agreeableness and cognitive ability may be essential to hiring a service employee, the list is not completely exhaustive.

Low on the manners

Lorna Doucet, emotional intelligence

For those who score low on the cognitive ability or the agreeableness scale, Prof. Doucet’s findings may be fortunate. In general, those who are disagreeable do not tend to value affiliation as an important element of social interactions, they are more at ease with behaving confrontationally or disagreeably. A common assumption would be to think that these employees are quite likely to botch up the relational part of the service experience – making the customer ill at ease and such. This may very well be true, were it not for the chance that the disagreeable employee may be able to recognise emotions. Recognising how customers feel can help disagreeable employees become more attuned to the relational needs of the customers – as a result making employees more socially effective. For example, the accurate reading of a customer’s frustration may prompt a disagreeable customer executive to act more courteously in a service encounter. This is happy news for all those who are not predisposed to be friendly and cooperative.

Low on the cognition

Those who thought high intellect was the key to success on a service job may want to rethink their qualifications through. Greater cognitive ability is associated with proficiency in job-relevant knowledge and increased analytical and information-processing skills, both of which enhance job performance. Those with low cognitive abilities may employ their emotion-recognition skills when addressing customers’ needs. Emotion-recognition enhances empathy and perspective taking which results in effective problem-solving. For example, a server in a restaurant with low cognitive ability may not easily memorize the menu. But if this server is very attuned to customer emotions, he may learn that customers become very frustrated when he forgets menu items.  So he may find other ways to take care of the customer (such as always carrying a list of menu items with him).  The server’s emotional radar helps him know when there is a problem or opportunity that he can address.

Adding emotions to the mix

Although human resource policies have begun to embrace the idea of emotional intelligence, using emotion-recognition ability as a criterion is still unheard of. Prof. Doucet’s findings imply that over reliance on a single selection criterion when recruiting service employees should be avoided, as there are different employee characteristics which can enhance service performance in a similar fashion. Organisations should take into consideration job candidates’ emotion-recognition ability, personality, and cognitive ability in recruiting employees for service jobs. This may result in organisations benefitting from improvements in the match between employees and their job roles. However, for those who lack emotional intelligence, there might yet be another fix.

One needn’t be born with it when they can learn it. Training for the development of emotional intelligence is another road human resource professional may consider taking. Evidence has shown that emotional intelligence can be improved through training. For example, research suggests that emotional intelligence could be developed in MBA students and that the emotional intelligence of leaders could be deliberately developed. Another experiment presented evidence that department store employees could be trained to read micro-expressions. Organisations pushing to increase their service performance may utilise training, such as micro- expression and subtle expression training tools, to build their employees’ emotion-recognition ability in the face of low cognition or agreeableness.

Under the emotional intelligence umbrella

CSR, leadership, social enterprise, management, philanthropy, diversity, gender equity, healthcare, sustainability, ethics, industrial relations, healthcare, employee wellbeing, Council on Business & Society, Global Voice magazine, ESSEC Business School, ESSEC Asia-Pacific, FGV-EAESP, Trinity College Dublin Business School, Keio Business School, Warwick Business School, School of Management Fudan University, Tom Gamble, Global Voice magazine, responsible innovation, Lorna Doucet, Emotional intelligence

Although previous research has highlighted that emotional intelligence is a deal-breaker when it comes to job performance, little was said about which abilities were precisely being referred to. This meant differences in job performances were frequently attributed to differences in cognitive abilities and agreeableness. Prof. Doucet’s extends this to include differences in the ability to read emotions, meaning that individual differences in emotion-reading abilities are likely to affect performance in service jobs.

Moreover, it is imperative to understand that those equipped with agreeable personalities or cognitive abilities are less likely to benefit from possessing emotion-recognition abilities. This link between performance and the ability to recognise emotions is significantly stronger in those who are low in agreeableness and cognitive ability. So, the effect of emotional intelligence or emotion recognition is more complex than originally imagined.

Prof. Doucet’s research simply attempts to shine the light over another ability – emotion-recognition – rather than steal the thunder from other important traits such as cognitive ability and agreeableness. Her research goes a step forward in concretely defining what it means to be emotionally-intelligent in the service industry. This, however, leads us to another question: have we peeled back all the layers of the complex trait defined as emotional intelligence?

Lorna Doucet, Emotional intelligence, Lorna Doucet Council on Business & Society
Lorna Doucet

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One response to “Recognising Emotions: A superpower in the service industry’s arsenal

  1. Pingback: Boosting Service Performance through Recognizing Emotions – CoBS Insights·

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