Want to Improve Your Service? Change Your Leader

August 1, 2010 by Ken Nowack

”There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.”

Roger Staubach

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The Leadership-Employee Engagement Connection

I’m not sure that it’s any great secret that leaders influence the level of commitment and engagementof their talent.  Nobody likes working for competent jerks–even if they accomplish a lot1.

Our own published research has explored a reliable inventory of leadership practices in all of our employee engagement/satisfaction surveys that enables us to see how talent reacts to leaders who are effective versus ineffective.  What we have seen is that talent working for “competent jerks” are significantly more likely to report the following:2.

  • Increase work stress
  • Decreased job satisfaction
  • Increased likelihood of leaving the company in the next 12 months

Bosses can also affect your health.  Bad bosses can significantly raise your blood pressureand directly increase your risk of a fatal cardiac event3.  Poor leadership behavior can also be an independent contributor to absenteeism.  In a recent prospective study of 506 males and 3,570 females, employees were absent 1.2 to 1.9 times more frequently when they worked for bosses who they perceived to be unfair, difficult and insensitive, after controlling for other factors4.

Bad leaders are one of the leading contributors to poor morale and disengagement.  Just ask just about any employee who voluntarily has left your organization in the last 12 months.

The Employee Engagement-Customer Service Connection

A recent meta-analysis by Brown & Lam (2008) investigated the link between employee engagement and customer service.  They found convincing evidence that talent who are unhappy create customers who are unhappy5.

This meta-analysis was an important one because it focuses on understanding when employee satisfaction is most likely to lead to negative customer satisfaction.  Two different jobs were analyzed–those in which a service is directly provided to another person (e.g., getting answers on the phone to a problem with a bill) and those in which service is performed on things (e.g., bringing your car in for a service problem).  Interestingly, the relationship between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction did not differ for these types of businesses.

One important implication for these findings is that when companies try to make organizational changes that are unpopular (changes in schedules, cutting backs on perks) it might negatively influence employee feelings that directly impact the customer experience.  Fostering employee satisfaction in jobs that involve personal services would seem to be the most critical–particularly in jobs where customers are likely to see and experience different service providers (e.g., getting cut off on an initial call to a help center and then getting another customer service agent).

Taken together, this latest meta-analytic study confirms what we intuitively know:  When employees are satisfied, they are more likely to provide better service.  Period.

For companies that can analyze their employee engagement/satisfaction surveys, analyze the direct line of sight between the leaders who are the “competent jerks” and satisfaction levels of the customers served under those leaders.

When you do find that link and can identify the “competent jerks” it might be worth “voting them off the island.”  I bet your internal customers will applaud and your external customers will keep coming back.

As the old saying goes, “washrooms will always tell you if your employees care about delivering customer service”….Be well….

  1. Casciaro & Lobo (2005). Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools and the Formation of Social Networks. Harvard Business Review, 82, 92-100 []
  2. Nowack, K. (2006). Emotional Intelligence: Leadership Makes a Difference. HR Trends. 17, 40-42 []
  3. Wagner, N., Feldman, G. & Hussy, T. (2003).  The effect of ambulatory blood pressure of working under favourably and unfavourably perceived supervisors.  Occupational Environmental Medicine, 60, 468-474 []
  4. Elovainio, M. et al., 2002. OrganizationalJustice: Evidence of a New PsychosocialPredictor of Health American Journal of Public Health, 92, 105-108 []
  5. Brown, S. P., & Lam, S. K. (2008). A meta-analysis of relationships linking employee satisfaction to customer responses. Journal of Retailing, 84, 243–255 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Relate, Selection

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  • Very true. Incompetent jerks are also hard to work for, as are incompetent sweetie pies. Basically, we all do our best work for competent people who are also fabulous human beings. Given the shortage of people like that in leadership roles I’m thinking either there aren’t very many of them or the system weeds them out early. A possible factor is competitiveness: http://ls-workgirl.blogspot.com/2010/06/are-high-performers-worst-managers.html

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