Lighten Up … The Magic of Leadership Levity
This is my brief end of year message to all of us in the Customer Care/Experience/Service business … Lighten up! I am strongly recommending taking a good, long, hard look in the mirror and asking yourself, “Do I need to lighten up? Does my organization need to lighten up? Have levity and wit taken their leave?”
My guess is that most of us could use a little levity. The levity I long most to see in this industry is “leadership levity.” The word levity is defined as “an inappropriate lack of seriousness,” and yes, this is what I am advocating. Leaders in our business seem to have adopted an “inappropriate level of seriousness” and I see leadership levity as the only way to counter this condition.
Just to be clear … I am NOT advocating being stupid, inappropriate, or irresponsible. But for goodness sake, many leaders I talk with today are so attached to the “dour” side that it is scary. Why is this? Is it too many hours staring at Excel spreadsheets looking for the right question to put with the “answers” found buried in the data? Is it too many hours wringing hands over budgets or too many hours looking at what is wrong with people and things in your Contact Center? Is it too many hours with nothing “funny” happening … too many hours without smiles? Dourness is a toxic habit, very much supported and even encouraged by today’s socialization of fear; fear keeps folks focused on the dark side. Levity requires light!
Leadership levity must be carefully crafted. You don’t want to get too happy too quickly; people will talk! Caution must be a partner in lightening up your space, your corner of the corporate world. I’d like to offer some suggestions. First, conduct a visual check of your environment. Does it look nice? Inviting? Warm? Light Spirited? When you look out over those folks engaging customers … do they seem “engaged?” Are you proud? I hope so. If not, it may be time to “lighten up.”
How exactly does one “lighten up?” How do we adopt leadership levity? Begin by monitoring your inner chatter. If you look out across the sea of caregivers and all of your internal chatter is negative or full of obstacles … this is your starting point. Our minds must be a partner in our efforts to “lighten up.”
Explore your leadership approach. Is it focused on what is wrong and needs to be corrected? Is it focused on your team’s weaknesses rather than their strengths? When we hire, we are accepting candidates as much for their potential as for their existing skills. Are the leaders in your camp focused on what is missing, or what is as yet undiscovered?
Ask your team to describe the learning plan for the upcoming year. Is it based on “potential” or simply on corrective action pointed out by metric analysis? We must acknowledge in this industry that potential is often the “unchartered” territory. Many of the folks that “wind up” in Customer Care come from places that may have “locked up” their potential for years. We may want to believe that we are recruiting the best of the best, but the reality is that we are often faced with educating on any number of academic, emotional, and social skills. Skills development will only occur in a nurturing environment. Many have never enjoyed the benefit of positive reinforcement in their professional or even their personal lives.
Leadership levity assists in opening minds and hearts to a new level of care and attention. When leadership is approached with a bit of levity, it is likely that the view will change considerably. The view will morph from one of weariness to one of excitement and engagement. Sadly, many in leadership roles focus on disappointment or disdain with regard to those they manage. This is evident to me when the front line embraces disdain for the customers. It is the pecking order … behavior at the front line is a mirror of leadership.
If you don’t like what you see when you look out upon your front line, get that mirror and ask “What have I done to contribute to this malaise?” If your response is “nothing,” keep asking until an answer comes to you. When leaders are uptight, when there is a tendency to train by corrective action rather than by pro-action, when all discussions center around what is NOT possible, then it is time to lighten up. Negative thinking only yields negative outcomes. Possibility thinking yields possibility.
If your environment has been damaged by a lack of levity, it is going to be a challenge to introduce a “lighten up” strategy. My recommendation is to start with the front line; begin by asking questions. My personal favorite … “What are the dumbest things we do here?” I have never seen this question asked without an enthusiastic response from the front line. Make it a contest – anonymous and funny – in its construct and output. What earned the most frequent mentions? Post it, study it. Perhaps there is a process improvement opportunity. This exercise puts the front line in a “thinking” mode combined with a bit of levity. It demonstrates a willingness at the leadership level to “hear” that perhaps not everything leaders do is so brilliant after all.
The next event in this exercise is to ask, “What are the smartest things we do around here?” Again, this is a thinking exercise. It provides an opportunity for leaders to learn about how the front line sees the operational and experiential world in which they reside for a significant number of their waking hours.
Another front line exercise is to routinely ask each team every week for a year, “What did you learn about our customers this week?” Imagine the book you would have after a year … something magnificent to share with the rest of the company! This story will gain visibility for Customer Care as a value added resource and a strategic asset to the enterprise overall.
Push the knowledge of the brand, the plans for the business, the goals, the vision, etc. These are grand markers for performance. Many uptight environments coach only to the incidental metric markers so popular and common in the Customer Care business. They neglect to coach to the experience, based on brand, vision, and business objectives.
Contextualize performance within a grander view; use a more holistic and professional approach than simply a metric driven scorecard or quality form. Metrics certainly play an important role in evaluating performance and coaching plays the most important role in changing behaviors. But coaching to isolated data points creates weary students. Lighten up your coaching within a context shared by all. Of course, this assumes that a strong and branded experience has been defined and reinforced with something greater than “you were late three times.” The better reinforcement is that there are “three vision violations due to tardiness.” The Customer Experience, brand, and vision are at risk each time someone is unwilling or unable to meet their “contribution” to the Contact Center’s capacity model (Contribution to Capacity Rant, October 2009). Be true to what you are trying to accomplish. It is not simply to beat the front line into submission; their role is to facilitate an experience. Absences and tardiness put that objective at risk.
An environment where we “lighten up” will allow more growth. Be cautious however. If your reflection on your environment has yielded concern, don’t try to introduce “light” by a pizza party or free lunch. That may be more like feeding ice cream to combat troops. Change in the environment must emerge from the largest force and that is generally the front line. Engaging those closest to the action will generate a sense of involvement and begin the journey to an environment that enjoys the benefit of “lighten up.” Doing something fun with the yields from the initial discovery exercises will allow the tide to be turned towards a more inviting environment. I reiterate my belief that it is leadership’s role to create an environment in which people can be motivated rather than attempting the tireless and impossible task of actually trying to motivate people. Intrinsic motivation is the key to long term enthusiasm. Growing your people requires building the environment first and foremost.
Here are a few other questions that may be worth considering: Training – What would you most like to learn? Quality – How can we improve our Quality program? Scorecards – Does the current scorecard accurately represent your contribution? The Customer Experience – Write the top 3 to 5 most important components of the Customer Experience. Study, evaluate, and publish your answers!
As time goes on, a front line “spirit committee” could emerge to work with leadership and continue to ask questions, plan celebrations, create contests, etc. But remember that committees of this sort are NOT the starting point. If the environment is damaged, it first must be carefully detangled, and what better time than year’s end to begin!!
Once leaders adopt a bit of levity – that is the ability to hold that mirror up to ourselves – communication barriers begin to break down and we can enjoy the full contribution of ALL the brains in the operation. Goodness knows, in this day and age of doing more with less, we need all the help we can get!
Lighten up your leadership and perhaps the yield will be the momentum that propels you toward the next great thing.
“There is always some levity even in excellent minds; they have wings to rise, and also to stay.” Joseph Joubert, French Moralist
– Reprinted with permission from PowerHouse Consulting, Inc., www.powerhouse1.com
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