February 5, 2013

Be Kind. The Simple Answer to the Costly Epidemic of Workplace Rudeness

Be kind.

According to my children’s head teacher, these two words cover everything he requires of pupil behaviour.

That’s all well and good you might be thinking, but is it really relevant to our understanding of the complexities of adult workplace behaviour and performance?  Most definitely it is.  It turns out that this head teacher is wise beyond his institution and that being kind is far more than an easy standard for school children to understand.

In fact, years of research shows that being rude to our colleagues has immediate and long term detrimental effects on employee engagement, commitment and performance, quite apart from its negative impact on workplace relationships and job and life satisfaction.

An article in HBR’s online magazine summarises two American academics’ long term findings on the impact of rudeness at work.  Here are a few “highlights” of Christine Porath’s and Christine Pearson’s work.

  • Half of people surveyed in 2011 said they were on the receiving end of rudeness at least once a week.  This is twice as many people as said this in 1998.
  • Large numbers of us decrease our effort, our time at work and the quality of our performance as a result of being on the receiving end of rudeness at work (48%, 47% and 38% respectively of those experiencing incivility).
  • 12% of people who experience rudeness at work say they have left a job because of it.

 Rudeness filters through to customers – who walk away

Rudeness within a workforce has an impact on customers too.  Pearson and Porath’s surveys and experimental research with other colleagues indicates that:

  • 25% of people who experience rudeness at work say that they have taken their frustration out on customers
  • customers witnessing rudeness amongst employees are significantly less likely to want to use the company’s service in the future and most will generalize their feelings about the rudeness they witness to all employees of that organisation.

Add to this the costs of managing incidents of incivility and the negative impact on creativity, accuracy, performance and willingness to help others revealed by a number of researchers in the field, and I think we can all agree that rudeness at work is officially a Really Bad Thing.

How to encourage a good-mannered workplace

So what to do to turn back the rising tide of workplace incivility and unkindness?  How can customer service organisation encourage and increase the sum total of  courtesy and positive interactions in order to improve the experience of both workers and customers?

We all know that rudeness makes us feel bad and ignoring its power to affect our work is a case of putting our heads in the sand.   However, the good news is that evidence suggests it is easy to create a virtuous circle of niceness and positive feeling.  Work by Kim and Yoon in the service sector suggests that positive behavior initiated by employees towards customers leads to more positive behaviour in return and a positive mood in the employee as a result.

The neuro-economist Paul J Zak believes that civility is part of what he terms the Golden Rule – ie, you be nice to me and I will be nice to you  – and is rooted in our body chemistry.  Studies show that when someone is nice to us our brains release the hormone oxytocin which not only makes us feel good but leads us to be nicer to others.

Conversely, it is easy to see how vicious circles of rudeness bad feeling and unkindness can also be created.

So we should acknowledge the power of courtesy and kindness at work and make it an explicit value for the department or organisation.  Amongst other thing, Porath and Pearson suggest making sure that leaders understand the impact their own behaviour has on others behaviour and that they role model positive, courteous and appreciative behavior towards their staff.    This will start the virtuous circle of civility and the ripple effect will pass this on right down the line to customers and even further.

 Another suggestion by researchers in the field is to make civility an explicit part of the recruitment process which embeds courtesy and kindness into the psychological contract.   And at a more local level, department or team leaders can discuss and agree with their staff what behaviour is expected and what is unacceptable, along with possible rewards or sanctions down the line.

 Making a difference

Rudeness is often regarded as something that we just have to put up with from time to time and consistently rude people often get away with this type of corrosive behaviour without direct challenge.  Yet we now know that it has a huge impact on both employee and customer experience and ultimately on the performance and bottom line of the organisation.

 So I see my children’s head teacher’s emphasis on being kind as a lesson for grown ups too.  It really is worth making the effort to treat others with kindness because if every one of us is just a little bit more civil and little more kind, the virtuous circle and ripple effect will ensure that it takes on a life of its own.  And who knows, it might well make its way back round to you.

Good luck.  And if it helps to get the ball rolling even just a little, I want to say that I really do appreciate you reading this blog today: thank you 🙂

References and further information

Porath, C., & Erez, A. (2009). Overlooked but not untouched: How rudeness reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109 (1), 29-44

Porath and Pearson, HBR Rudeness article : http://hbr.org/2013/01/the-price-of-incivility/ar/1

Kim E, and Yoon DJ (2012). Why Does Service With a Smile Make Employees Happy? A Social Interaction Model. The Journal of Applied Psychology 97(5) 758 – 775

C. Porath, D. MacInnis, V. S. Folkes. It’s Unfair: Why Customers Who Merely Observe an Uncivil Employee Abandon the CompanyJournal of Service Research, 2011

Flin, R, Rudeness at Work Causes Mistakes BMI British Medical Journal ,2010, July 7

August 10, 2012

No Really, These are Laughter Lines…..

Do we really need more reasons to convince us that increasing the average age of call centre employees would be a good thing?

Probably not.  But just in case you encounter someone who is still adamant that customer service is a young person’s game, here is a little more information from the world of academic psychology.

It turns out that older people have learnt the key to keeping cheerful: look the other way, and quickly.

Emotional resilience, old-style

We already understand that positive emotions enhance customer experience and are transferable.  And plenty of research suggests that older people show more positive emotions than younger people and can cheer themselves up quicker that younger people.  Now US psychologist Derek Isaacowitz has shown that this may well be because  they switch attention from negative stimuli to positive more quickly than younger people.

His studies using eye tracking show that older people tend to have more “positive looking patterns” than young people, and do most of it when they are in a bad mood.


Out of the lab, this suggests that older workers are more adept at turning their attention to positive information than younger people, helping them to remain positive and snap out of bad moods more quickly than their younger colleagues.

Clearly this an important resource for workers in front-line customer service positions where the emotions and complaints of customers can generate significant emotional labour requirements and be an emotional drain on service providers.  Older workers, who are more inclined to refocus on the positives, may well have better staying power in these positions and help to reinforce the emotional resilience of teams.

So, customer service recruiters: it’s time to throw out any remaining Victor Meldrew stereoptypes of grumpy old men and replace them with a more accurate picture of older people who have learned how to bounce back and hold on to a sunnier disposition.  It seems that those wrinkles really are laughter lines.


 D. M. Isaacowitz. Mood Regulation in Real Time: Age Differences in the Role of LookingCurrent Directions in Psychological Science, 2012; 21 (4): 237 DOI : 10.1177/0963721412448651

Derek M. Isaacowitz and Fredda Blanchard-Fields. Linking Process and Outcome in the Study of Emotion and AgingPerspectives on Psychological Science, January 2012 vol. 7 no. 1 3-17

Donna R. Addis, Christina M. Leclerc, Keely A. Muscatell, Elizabeth A. Kensinger. There are age-related changes in neural connectivity during the encoding of positive, but not negative, informationCortex, 2010; 46 (4): 425


March 20, 2012

The New Glass Ceiling: Are We Guilty of Holding Introverts Back?

There is a remarkable video of a talk that has recently been posted on the web by TED.com.   It’s about how introverts work and it is remarkable not just because this simple, 20 minute talk has notched up an incredible 1,270,000 views, despite only being posted a couple of weeks ago, but also because it is confidently delivered, against all her inclinations, by an avowed introvert.

As Susan Cain explains in her talk, public speaking is not a natural territory for introverts.  Very rarely will you see a conference stage or a boardroom paced by an introvert as they espouse their views on the matter in hand.  The people you see doing this are much more likely to be extroverts, who are significantly more comfortable than introverts with sharing the contents of their minds and hearts and far more inclined to engage in debate and discussion with others who agree or disagree.

Introverts, and that’s at least a considerable minority of the population (although estimations vary, with some arguing that it could include anything up to 50% of the population), just don’t tend to put themselves in these types of situations.  Reluctant to offer snap responses and preferring reflection and individual decision making to any common workplace practice such as arguing a case, negotiating an outcome or riding the wave of a discussion, introverts’ favourite spaces are far from the battlefields of meetings, public speaking or vigorous debate.

More importantly, they just don’t do their best thinking there. They struggle and usually fail to achieve their true potential in these environments, in stark opposition to extraverts who rely on external inputs and communication to stimulate their creativity, develop their ideas and help form their opinions.

So what then is introverted Susan Cain doing on stage commanding both a live and a huge global online audience?  Continue reading

February 3, 2012

Why the RBS Bonus Furore Should Give All Employers Pause for Thought About Rewards

So ex-RBS boss Sir Fred Goodwin is now plain old “Fred the Pleb”, having been stripped of his Knighthood for leading (pushing?) the bank off the economic gang-plank.  And now the current boss, Stephen Hester has been forced to hand back his hefty share bonus after political and media furore in theUK.

Both of them were deprived of their performance-related honorific or financial reward because of a perceived or real mismatch between what they got and what they had actually achieved

Stephen Hester’s reward package was put together when he joined the organisation in 2008, just after the taxpayer bailout of the failing bank and the organisation was desperate to find the right person to get the bank back on track.

But the leaders clearly made a classic reward package error – they failed to align their reward system with the true values of the business.   In other words, the company misjudged the feelings of the new owners – ie, the millions of British taxpayers who through the government now effectively own a majority of shares in the bank..

It’s an easy mistake to make: and one that many other companies commit when creating reward systems for their employees.  Instead of ensuring that employee reward is linked to the values of the business (in this case influenced extensively by the public and the politicians), they look at micro-performance and reward for individual achievements measured in a simplistic quantitative way.

To be fair it is a complicated business. And it’s no easier getting a reward system right for customer service employees than it is for chief executives.  It involves addressing difficult strategic questions like: Continue reading

January 27, 2012

Listen Carefully: You Might Make Someone Smile

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

                                    Stephen R Covey: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

It goes without saying that listening to customers is central to successful and sustainable business.   The new focus on the “voice of the customer” requires organisations to use all sorts of methods to hear what customers are saying about them and their services and products.  A myriad of new technology offers to help capture these conversations and issues from call centres, social media, email correspondence and anywhere that customers are talking.

Current technology is semantics-led: it captures words and phrases used by customers and categorises them for analysis.  How many people are talking about delivery failure for example, could indicate that a company needs to investigate whether there are service improvements that should be made. But in the previous post I argue that the easiets place to start hearing the customers’ voice is from the people employed to be in contact with them. http://bit.ly/yvxFdV The sensitivity and sophistication of these data collection and analysis units is second to none.  However, these listening capabilities have the portential to be used in an even more sophisticated and engaging way, though it is not perhaps as easy as it looks.

It is entirely correct that organisations  should be making efforts to listen to customers.

But it’s a different thing entirely to say that customers need to be listened to.

It is more than data collection: it’s an emotional experience.  When we are listened to, someone else stays quiet and attentive and demonstrates through their occasional linguistic contributions that they have heard us, understood us and empathised with us.

The real listener brings no agenda.  They don’t say “I know, I know”.  Continue reading

January 20, 2012

Yoo-hoo, Over Here, It’s the Voice of the Customer: Do You Compute?

In a recent article in HRmagazine.co.uk, Helen Murray laments the plight of call centre agents who have to listen to the same old customer complaints over and over again.

Too true.

Then she goes on to argue that this is because many companies don’t have the processes or solutions to appreciate the customer’s perspective.

Not true.

Many of the points that Helen Murray makes are valid and pertinent to a consideration of how to improve customer service. Listening to the “Voice of the Customer” will reveal invaluable information about how to improve strategy, service and products. Good organisations will use the means at their disposal to gather information from a wide range of sources including social media, call centre calls, forums, and digital and traditional correspondence. Many organisations are not doing this and are missing out on opportunities to learn and advance from a better understanding of what they are doing right and wrong in the eyes of their customers.

But there we part company. Continue reading

January 13, 2012

Does Virtual Shopping Mean Curtains for the High Street or Are We Being Seduced Back into the Real World?

Question:  What distinguishes those retailers who will survive and thrive on the high street and those who will sink into oblivion under the weight of internet shopping?

Answer: An in-depth appreciation of the things that customers value about a direct retail experience.  The things that make the in-store experience something of genuine added value.

 The economies of scale and reduced overheads, and sheer shopping convenience achieved by a virtual store will never be matched by real life bricks and mortar shops, so the competitive advantage has to lie elsewhere.  Reducing prices and increasing ranges will only go so far in driving sales and eventually the squeeze on profits will force many shops into radical restructuring or liquidation.   Those who survive will have had a concerted re-think about what they are offering over and above the internet.

HMV, the iconic music and entertainment high street retailer in the UK is a case in point.  Despite announcing profits warning after dismal forecast during 2011, the company pushed on throughout the Christmas trading period and continues to insist that it will survive, despite a sales slump (8.1% decline in like for like sales for the 5 weeks to the end of December).

I fear the writing is on the wall HMV.  The internet offers identical products cheaper and without the trip into town.   Your store refurbishment programme is nice but not sufficient and your British stiff upper lip in the face of continual bad results is admirable but Titanically hopeless.  If you continue to do what you have always done, you will get what you have always got – and in your case that is consistently declining sales.  There is only one place it can end up: administration or disposal of assets.

There are many other examples of high street retailers struggling to survive against the combined might of internet retailing and the global economic depression: Blacks the outdoors retailer, Past Times the nostalgia gifts retailer, Hawkins Bazaar the toy shop, Barratts the shoe shop and Thorntons the chocolatier.  What unites them is that they are all long-established high street retailers dealing with the new world around them by doggedly sticking to doing what they have always done.  Perhaps they are reducing prices and making “efficiencies” but essentially, with the exception of an updated product range, when you enter their shops you might as well be stepping back ten years.

The high street is doomed.

But wait!  There is a new breed of high street shops that don’t seem to be declining.  In fact they are filling up the empty shop-fronts with bold new offers.  They include shops like Hollister, Build-a-Bear, and countless beauty emporiums. There is nothing new in the type of products they are offering – we are still buying clothes, toys and lotions as we always have – but  the way these companies sell them is different and they are expanding as quickly as others are falling around them. Continue reading

December 23, 2011

Boxing Day: A Festive Experiment in Gratitude

I realise that the proverbial partying, frenzied gift buying or making and stocking up on traditional food items to mark the occasion is still going on in anticipation of Christmas day.  But in the last post before Christmas I wanted to take a moment to mention the following day, Boxing Day: because it offers a unique opportunity to anyone interested in the dynamics of service.

Boxing day is traditionally the day when householders give small gifts or money called a christmas box to people who provide a service to them during the year.  In days of old that might have been housemaids, stable boys and coachmen.  Nowadays it is more likely to be given to the people who provide a service to us during the year but often are not paid by us directly, including the lads and lasses who empty our bins, deliver our mail and bring the Sunday papers.  And it is generally given before Christmas since not many of these services operate on Boxing Day itself.

A Christmas box  is a small gift that recognises and acknowledges the service  these people provide throughout the year and is often given to people we rarely see but whose labour is a valued service and whom we fund through our local or central taxes.  

If it isn’t something you normally do, perhaps because you so rarely see these people, I wonder if you might give it a try this year?

Here’s why.  And let’s take the bin-men as an example.

1.  It communicates appreciation  

The bin-men may be paid by the taxes collected from us for all the services needed to keep our environment safe and clean, but the relationship between us is somewhat remote.  Despite benefiting from the services they provide, we are not their direct employers and I would hazard a guess that we don’t all rush out to give feedback on the quality of the job and a personal thank you each time we put out our bins.    Continue reading

December 8, 2011

Why Aren’t You Helping Me, You Half-Witted, Time-Wasting, Rip-Off Merchant?

Speaking on the BBC this week, Guy Winch, psychologist and complaining expert, (or rather, expert on complaining) talked about the contradiction between our need to let off steam when we have experienced poor service, and our drive to resolve the problem.

Guy Winch points out that although we really want to vent our feelings when we have been let down by an organisation, if we do this vociferously to an innocent call centre representative, and then expect them to pull out all the stops to rectify the problem, we are simply barking up the wrong tree.

A recurrent theme here on Customer Service Psychology is how the failure to appreciate the emotions involved in customer service underlies and explains many of the problems that both organisations and customers have with service relationships and outcomes.   (http://bit.ly/reScVChttp://bit.ly/vMm9A8 etc.).

Once we lose sight of the fact that our own responses to disappointment in both personal and business relationships are emotional, as are the responses of any customer service employee, we are much less likely to get a satisfactory result.   Of course, that is not to say that by understanding and acting on this knowledge we will definitely secure what we want, but simply that it will give us the best chance of achieving it.  

Guy Winch suggests that we think clearly about what we want to achieve with a complaint.  We should pick our battles carefully, complaining when and only when it is important and using a technique he calls the “complaint sandwich”.  In other words, we should sandwich the meat of the complaint between two pieces of positive bread.  An example might go something like:

“I was really pleased to receive a delivery from you this morning as I love your products, but when I opened it I was really disappointed to see that there were 2 items missing.  This hasn’t happened before and I know that you work really hard to deliver everything to time and specification.  I wonder if you can resolve this issue for me?”

This “sandwich” metaphor will be familiar to many HR and line managers who have had training in how to deliver performance feedback to their staff where it is often known as the “feedback sandwich”.  Tell someone what they are really good at, tell them something they could improve and then feed back something else you have noticed that they are great at. This makes the point but lowers defensiveness by making it clear that strengths and effort have been recognised too.  Importantly, the conversation covers more good than bad.

Simply put, we find criticism difficult, but if it is wrapped up in an extolment of our many virtues and presented as a tiny little improvement that could make a huge difference, we can usually accept it. 

The principle stands in every relationship we have in life: with our children, our partners, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, our bosses and our employees.  People will try harder if we are mostly positive, and at some level we probably all know that this is the case.

So why is it that we don’t use the complaint sandwich every time? 

Why do we often rant and rave?  Why do we launch into a vehement catalogue of complaints when we have been let down by a company, taken time away from other things we should be doing, kept on hold for 20 minutes and then put through to a call centre representative whose command of English means we have little chance of a productive conversation.  Well naturally because we are human:  an emotional, irrational and currently fuming human.  And, arguably, sometimes what we actually need most is to let off steam.  The effort involved in containing a basic emotional response to injustice and betrayal (which as previous posts have explored are often the emotions we are feeling, however much of a rational, sophisticated gloss we put on them) is just too much.  The need to restore balance and be heard is top of the list, and resolving the issue has to take second place.

A really intelligent company will understand this, and its representatives will be trained and supported in understanding and dealing with the emotions customers bring to their interactions with a company representative.  But most don’t, and crucially don’t invest in the recruitment, training, management and reward processes which enable front line customer-facing employees to cope with this.  So unfortunately, bubbling frustrations, obvious and unhelpful scripts, raised voices and terminations of calls are standard fare in the hubbub of service conversations around the world.

In fact, it became clear to me that there is a line of training provided to customer service staff that actively encourages customer service representatives to find reasons to terminate a customer interaction specifically as a result of the expression of emotions.  A snippet from the middle of a conversation I overheard between an irritated customer and a very uncomfortable car parts front desk clerk will demonstrate I hope.

Customer  “…so it just isn’t good enough to say you won’t provide a courtesy car while you repair my brand new car for the fourth time since I bought it two months ago.  I will need a courtesy car.”

Desk Clerk “If you raise your voice, Mrs Parker, I will terminate this conversation”

Customer  “I am not raising my voice, I am asking you to find me a car.”

Desk Clerk  “Right, OK.  Well I can’t do that, we don’t have one available.”

Customer “Yes you can.  It is utterly unacceptable to sell me a car that is falling apart when I made it clear I wanted a reliable car and then to leave me carless for a week. Do you think that is acceptable?

Desk Clerk (backing off)  “If you are insulting I am entitled to end this conversation right now”

Customer “ Fine.  Tell me where I have been insulting and we can agree to end it”  Pause  “Good, now you can try to find me a courtesy car.”

The front desk clerk was searching for the “legitimate reason” given to him in training that would enable him to walk away from the customer’s problem and associated emotion.  How much better it would have been to train him in listening to, acknowledging and sympathising with the customer’s perspective whilst not taking the emotions personally.   No additional investment required – just a simple change of approach which would demonstrate customer-centricity and result in improved customer loyalty. 

Guy Winch has teamed up with a call centre to experimentally examine the effect of training call centre employees in improved “emotional validation” behaviour.  Do call centre agents who listen and acknowledge emotions leave customers more satisfied with the service they have received?  It seems obvious when you think about it – people who are genuinely heard and acknowledged will feel better about the situation.  Yet there is little hard evidence out there from real life customer interactions and so Guy Winch’s results, whatever they show, will be welcome.   

Organisations work hard to deliver excellent products and services to their customers.  Perhaps they could work a little harder to understand how problems with them can influence the emotions of their customers.   They already do a great job in appreciating how emotions influence decisions to purchase, so it would complete the circle.

You’ve got it.  Feedback sandwich anyone?



Guy Winch, author of “The Squeaky Wheel”.   More at http://www.guywinch.com