Dave Salisbury shares insight into how coercive leadership can result in call centre communication breakdowns.
A Classic Contact Centre Communication Breakdown Story
A call centre asked for some help, pre-COVID. They have an “open-door” policy, including a “virtual open-door” for employees to use to communicate with business leaders.
The call centre 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 centre.
In making observations, the consultant team tested the “open-door” policy and found that those sought were never physically in their offices even though the doors were open.
The consultant team tested the “open-door” policy and found that those sought were never physically in their offices even though the doors were open.
Emails testing the “virtual open-door” policy often were not responded to, or the responses conveyed an attitude of apathy, quite contradictory to the organizational customer service philosophy and culture. 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 perceived a chasm separating them from higher organizational leaders.
Most important was a lack of a single message from business leaders, through human resources and front-line supervisors, to new hires and existing employees.
New hire confusion about schedules, who to go to, how to obtain job accommodation, etc., degrading new hires’ trust, as well as causing issues with current employees.
This lack of trust in organizational communication was causing problems throughout the entire business structure.
The Problem: Coercion
Author and psychologist Gary Yukl (2010, p. 7) stated the definition of leadership as a: “Multidirectional influence relationship between a leader and followers, [for] 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”
Virginia Commonwealth University Professor Gilbert 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 form a social contract; a call centre is one of the most unique social environments possible.
The leader who inspires communication is the call centre leader who will be highly successful and train others to be highly successful.
Due to this social environment, the leader who inspires communication is the call centre leader who will be highly successful and train others to be highly successful.
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 centres and takes the form of restrictive policies, carrot/stick incentives, and human treatment policies that allow favouritism to rule instead of results.
Coercion can be destructive, and coercive practices are preventable. Yukl (2010) further elaborated that the follower only gives the coercive leader power out of fear or to act 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, creating 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 that 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.
Persuasion Is a Better Tool
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 aids in reaching 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, individual agency. The follower needs to possess agency to act, and informed agency requires training to act, and the power and support of leadership to feel confident in action, as detailed by Boler (1968) and Avolio and Yammarino (2002). Which is where concept 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 individual agency in employees to act.
One of the worst things a leader can do when coercion is suspected is run “trust exercises”, such as standing a person on a chair and having them fall back into the team’s waiting arms. A call centre leader colleague tried holding team and department meetings using “trust exercises”, and the result was best described as a catastrophe. The actions proposed here are practical and can be employed in all call centres, including those working remotely due to COVID.
3 Good Ways to Improve Call Centre Communication
While “trust exercises” may not be so good, here are three much better ideas for improving call centre communication.
1. Employ Praise!
Honest, truthful, fact-based, and reasoned praise is the most powerful tool a call centre leader can employ to build people.
With many call centre workers working remotely, using praise as a recognition tool is critical to improving employee performance.
To spot opportunities for employing praise, here are a few best practices:
- 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.
For more on giving feedback to your team in coaching sessions, read our article: How to Achieve Excellent Customer Service Through Coaching
2. Offer a Variety of Support Mechanisms
Saying you have an “open door” is not enough. Be the support mechanism your people need.
- Respond to emails with urgency and enthusiasm. 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 and 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 “virtual open-door” policies; failure to listen and act is the number one failure of “open-door” policies of all types.
3. Switch Up Your Training
If training is not a value-added exercise to the person receiving it, training has not occurred, resources have been wasted, and problems are being generated.
So, consider each of the following questions:
- 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 programme 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 centre leader, know your training investment dollars can return a positive investment?
Training remote workers, especially, requires training programmes that can motivate learners to change personal behaviour. Thus, the training must have the ability to reach the student’s honour and integrity.
For more great ideas to improve contract centre training, read our article: 50 Call Centre Training Tips
COVID has provided many opportunities, and only through collaboration, communication, trust, and individual agency can call centres expect to survive this difficult period.
Regardless of how long the government shutdowns occur, your call centre can survive, and call centre leaders can prosper, provided they are willing to be leaders indeed, not managers in disguise.
Thanks to Dave Salisbury, an operations and customer relations specialist, for his help in putting together this article.
For more great articles from Dave Salisbury, check out the following stories:
- What “Going the Extra Mile” REALLY Means in Customer Service
- Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) Are Damaging Employee Engagement
- How to Improve Your Customer Service Listening Skills
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. (2001). Mastering inner leadership. Greenwood Publishing Group.
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.).