How to Support a Fearless Work Environment
By Susan Hash
There is a great deal of fear in the workplace these days. The turbulent economy is affecting employee attitudes, creating fear and anxiety about budget cuts, layoffs and wage reductions. A bureaucratic corporate culture adds fuel to the fire, fostering an atmosphere of distrust as inept leaders attempt to control staff using fear-based tactics, such as hoarding information, enforcing meaningless policies to keep employees from expressing independent ideas and creativity, and constantly conveying to staff the message that they're "just lucky to have a job."

Fear kills productivity and concentration, and impairs decision making. When employees work in tightknit groups, such as with call center teams, fear and anxiety can quickly spread like a virus—a phenomenon known as "emotional contagion." The following ideas can help you to stop the negative impact of fear before it infects your center.

Recognition from Execs Shows Reps They Matter
In too many organizations, the frontline staff's work, accomplishments and insights are overlooked by the company's senior executives. There is nothing more dispiriting than feeling like an unknown cog toiling away in obscurity.

Leading service providers understand the importance of showing frontline staff how much their contribution is valued. At Comerica Bank, senior management is highly engaged with call center staff. Visiting execs from other states make a point of spending time in the center when they're in town. They don't just walk through the center, they shake hands with reps, greet them by name and sit with them.

Comerica execs hold regular focus groups with agents to get their insights before setting productivity goals. Reps are shown profitability models, the bank's current and past performance data, and are actively involved in setting fair goals. Reps also contribute their input to the quality assurance program and how they're held accountable.

Practical Pointer: Prep your execs before they make a visit to your center. Give them a list of individual reps to recognize, along with their recent achievements. An important note: Recognition has to be genuine to be meaningful. Make sure that the execs commit the information to memory and not read off a piece of paper when they're speaking to the reps.

Focus on Your Agents' Strengths
When was the last time you evaluated your approach to coaching and feedback? There is a lack of education in companies across industries about how to motivate staff, says JoAnna Brandi, author, consultant and publisher of The Customer Care Coach. As a result, most managers rely on outdated techniques that cause more harm than good. "We're still running businesses like they're factories—looking for the defects and making sure that everybody knows what those are," she says. "The field of positive psychology tells us clearly that, if we're looking for high performance, the ratio of positive to negative statements has to be 5:1—five positive statements for every corrective one."

Research by the Gallup organization has found that strengths-based coaching and communication is much more effective than techniques that focus on error correction. In fact, managers who focus on their employees' strengths typically have a much higher percentage of engaged employees (61%) vs. those who are actively disengaged (1%). However, managers who focus on employee weaknesses or error correction have 45% engaged employees and 22% actively disengaged. In companies where staff felt that they were ignored by their managers, only 2% were engaged, and 40% were actively disengaged.

How do you focus on your staff's strengths? First, help your supervisors and agents to understand what each person's strengths are with a strengths assessment. There are many tools available, such as the Clifton StrengthsFinder (provided by Gallup) or VIA Me! Character Strengths Profile, from the VIA Institute on Character.

Work at Developing Good Habits
Creating a positive culture doesn't happen overnight. But managers can learn how to be more positive. "Happiness is a skill," says Brandi. "It doesn't just happen. For most people, happiness happens when you have good habits of mind, body and thought."

How can you get started? Brandi recommends the following:
  • Hold frequent huddles to give agents an inspirational pep talk. Ask them what went well during their most recent shift and why; and what they were proudest of that day or during the week. Keep in mind that this should not be a gripe session—instead, focus on the things that are going well.
  • When you go to a meeting, listen for the good stuff and bring back the good news to share with your staff.
  • Designate your center "positive thinking territory." Post signs, such as: "You are entering a positive thinking area." Make sure that reps are equipped with books, videos, tipsheets and tools to ensure that they're using positive language.
"Make it easy for your employees to feel happier at work," Brandi says. "Being focused on what is positive will have a powerful impact on the way coworkers interact and the way they treat customers, as well."

INSIDE VIEW: Bronto Software
Bronto Software is a SaaS email marketing services provider that differentiates itself through customer service, or as the company calls it, "Strategy as a Service." It's a business model that has generated remarkable growth and accolades for the Durham, N.C.-based firm. Its 60% growth in 2010 contributed to it being listed as one of Inc. Magazine's Top 100 fastest-growing software companies. In addition, Bronto has been a finalist for a Stevie Award for its customer service for the last four years in a row—and in 2009 and 2010, its client services team brought home
Read the full story here.

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