A call center recently asked for some help. They have an “open-door” policy for employees to use. The call center meets all the designated training directives and compliance mandates. They believe they are the “best of the best” in providing customer support and have won awards from third-parties to back up these claims. Yet, employee churn remains high, employee morale remains low, and the leaders are becoming wary of the employment pool attracted to the call center.
In making observations, the consultant team tested the “open-door” policy and found that those sought were never in their offices even though the doors were open. The training was occurring, but the training offered had little to no value for the front-line customer-facing staff. It was generally considered a zero-sum game, providing time off the phones and causing stress and overtime costs. Worse, the front-line supervisors and employees’ perception was the existence of a chasm, separating them from higher organizational leaders.
Yukl (2010, p. 7) stated the definition of leadership as a “… multi-directional influence relationship between a leader and followers with the mutual purpose of accomplishing real change. Leaders and followers influence each other as they interact in non-coercive ways to decide what changes they want to make.” Fairholm (2001) built on the definition by Yukl (2010), insisting that leadership is a social event specific to the group of followers and leaders. Leadership and followership is a social contract; a call center is one of the most unique social environments possible. Due to this social environment, the leader who inspires communication is the call center leader who will be highly successful and train others to be highly successful.
Inherent to a fruitful and lasting social environment that promotes growth and development, leadership requires non-coercive methods to inspire and empower and provide aid to followers during change. Leadership in call centers is a social event specific to that group of followers, and leaders requiring mutuality in action to influence objectives being appropriately met. Coercion is a poison that infects like cancer into social environments; unfortunately, coercion is an easy trap to fall into as it is effective in the short-term.
Using the definition of leadership by Yukl (2010), we find why coercive leadership is ineffective; coercion cannot touch the followers’ hearts and minds to empower action towards objectives. A coercive action is any activity performed to harm or ensure the compliance of the action’s target. Coercive practices take many forms, from withholding benefits, including praise, to overt action, including threats and force. Coercive measures are used as leverage to force an individual or team to act in a way contrary to their individual or team interests. Covert coercion is rampant in many call centers and takes the form of restrictive policies, carrot/stick incentives, and human treatment policies that allow favoritism to rule instead of results.
Coercion is pernicious, and coercive practices are preventable. Yukl (2010) further elaborated that the follower only gives the coercive leader power out of fear or acts as a coercive agent to oppress others. Furthermore, Yukl (2010, p. 137) specified that coercive leadership produces fear as the only motivator, and fear is dysfunctional, making nothing but more dysfunction in followers. Academic researchers often use the military as an example of coercive power and coercive leadership. Yet, having served in the US Army and the US Navy, I can attest coercion does not work in the military just as it does not work in any other industry. Coercive power is an acid destroying everything, building nothing, and dehumanizing people into animals.
The opposite of coercion is persuasion. Persuasion is the mode of being effective in collaboration, and persuasion requires trust and communication. Trust is an operational factor that builds the relationship between followers and leaders. It is the single most crucial factor in collaboration; but, collaboration and trust, as operational concepts, require two-directional communication to reach maximum effectiveness (Du, Erkens, Xu, 2018).
Communication as a tool in expressing confidence in the follower/leader relationship gains strength to clear misunderstandings and reach the desired consensus to meet organizational goals and operational objectives. The operational concept of trust and communication requires the third leg of the trust relationship agency. The follower needs to possess agency to act, informed agency requires training to employ, and the power and support of leadership to feel confident in action as detailed by Boler (1968), Avolio and Yammarino (2002). Which is where concepts meet reality, where theory is tested, and the leader is needed.
The following are proposed actions to build trust in organizations, improve communications, and empower the agency in employees to act. One of the worst things a leader can do when coercion is suspected is “trust exercises.” Trust exercises like standing a person on a chair and having them fall back into the team’s waiting arms. A call center leader colleague tried holding team and department meetings using “trust exercises,” and the result was best described as a catastrophe. The actions proposed are practical and can be employed in all call centers, including those working remotely due to COVID.
- Employ praise! Honest, truthful, fact-based, and reasoned praise is the most powerful tool a call center leader can employ to build people. With many call center workers working remotely, using praise as a recognition tool is critical to improving employee performance.
- Use QA calls to issue praise.
- Use non-cash incentives to recognize powerful deeds.
- Make praise public through company newsletters and leadership emails.
- Be specific, direct, and honest in your praise.
- Be consistent in offering praise.
- Saying you have an “open door” is not enough, be the support mechanism your people need.
- Respond to emails. Even if you cannot offer a substantial response immediately, personalize the email response, set a follow-up date, and meet those follow-up dates for additional communication.
- Respond to employee questions with enthusiasm for listening and acting, not merely speaking.
- Stop active listening; begin immediately to listen to meet mutual understanding through reflective listening. Mutual understanding and a promise to act on a concern are essential to support “open-door” policies; failure to listen and act is the number one failure of “open-door” policies.
- Training must change. If training is not a value-added exercise to the person receiving training, training has not occurred, resources have been wasted, and problems are generating.
- Does your trainer know how to gather qualitative data from front-line workers to make curriculum developments?
- Does your trainer know how to collect quantitative data from the training program to gauge decision-making in curriculum improvement?
- What adult education theories are your trainers employing to instruct, build, and motivate adult learners who are employed?
- How do you measure training effectiveness?
- Does a “trained” employee know how to use trainers’ information to change individual approaches?
- Do team leaders take an active role in training, or are they just “too busy?”
All these questions and more should be powering your training of the trainer discussions. If these questions are not being addressed, how will you, the call center leader, know your training investment dollars can return a positive investment? Training remote workers, especially, requires training programs that can motivate learners to change personal behavior. Thus, the training must have the ability to reach the student’s honor and integrity.
COVID has provided many opportunities, and only through collaboration, communication, trust, and empowered agency, can help call centers to survive this difficult period. Regardless of how long the government shutdowns occur, your call center can survive, and call center leaders can prosper, provided they are willing to be leaders indeed, not managers in disguise.
Avolio, B. J., & Yammarino, F. J. (2002). Transformational and charismatic leadership: The road ahead. San Diego, CA: Emerald.
Boler, J. (1968). Agency. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 29(2), 165-181.
Du, F., Erkens, D. H., & Xu, K. (2018). How trust in subordinates affects service quality: Evidence from a large property management firm. Business.Illinois.edu. Retrieved from https://business.illinois.edu/accountancy/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2018/03/Managerial-Symposium-2018-Session-IV-Du-Erkens-and-Xu.pdf.
Fairholm, Gilbert W. Mastering inner leadership. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
Ruben, B. D., & Gigliotti, R. A. (2017). Communication: Sine qua non of organizational leadership theory and practice. International Journal of Business Communication, 54(1), 12-30.
Yukl, G. (2010, April 23). Leadership in organizations [Adobe Digital Edition Version 1.5] (7th ed.).
© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury
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