Managing Call Center Stress and the Bully Boss

By Darnell Lattal

When you look around your call center, do you see engaged employees, or do you observe a stressed culture that watches the clock and avoids managers who may demand even more from them? With a group of employees whose performance is constantly measured, it’s easy to feel stress, depending on what happens because of those measures. But what can be done to reduce your stress in daily activity?

Very similar events cause conditions of physiological arousal and psychological distress: anger, dread, and active avoidance of the stressors in a person’s life (including one’s boss, colleagues, or clients). The effects of stress contribute to many seemingly unrelated physical and mental health conditions. While the evidence for a causal link between stress and certain diseases are discounted by most medical professionals (cancer, for example, is rarely described as “caused” by stress), physical factors potentially indicative of stress at work include fatigue, inability to concentrate, withdrawal and depression, nausea, sleeplessness leading to disrupted decision making, and limited problem-solving abilities.

We are all about connections in our work, as this magazine’s name implies. The answer to our workplace stress is designing meaningful human connections in the workplace and incorporating them into the form and manner in which the work is done. Finding good connections and disconnecting from negative ones immediately reduces personal stress. While there is much a person can do at a personal level, the larger solution does not lie with the stressed worker but with the design by which work occurs.

When changes occur over which an individual has little to no input, the effects can be extremely stressful. Remedial efforts tell individuals how to cope, handle it, be more assertive, practice relaxation, engage in thought stoppage or redefinition, find a good personal and workplace balance, laugh it off, believe in oneself, and so on. Clearly, the expectation is that stress at work can be solved by the stressed worker. Look at nearly all articles on stress. They are typically about how the employee can do things differently: tips on how to relax, tips for managing, and tips for saying “no.” Articles rarely (if ever) address a root-cause analysis of what makes the workplace stressful in the first place. Feeling stress is a signal to take action, and that signal is not a bad thing. Good strategies for your physical and behavioral reactions to stress are worthwhile, but stress is not simply personal.

Stressed employees often respond to the removal or absence of reinforcement, be it social or a recognition of their worth. More times than not, positive recognition is replaced by coercion, threats, and fear. Such a “bully culture” reinforces managers who act like bullies. These careless conditions wreak havoc both on the employee and on optimal productivity. Anger in the workplace correlates with how workers are treated by their bosses. Of all the sophisticated requirements of leadership in American business today, managers are all too rarely held directly and meaningfully accountable for the destructive effect they have on their employees.

The effects of anger at work include:

  • A failure to attend to quality, productivity, and service
  • An underreporting of problems in hopes of avoiding negative feedback
  • Over-reporting success for fear of what truthful reporting will do
  • Lackluster interactions with customers and vendors
  • Teams that spread growing resentment when they perceive that they or their colleagues have been wrongly treated
  • Managers and supervisors who are often celebrated for getting the work done rather than for how it is done

The actions that help to reduce or eliminate anger lie in the application of the science of human behavior. Call center leadership must learn to appreciate how removing threats and fear from their work practices reduces worker stress, and how teaching bully managers new methods can increase conditions in which employees want to versus have to work.

Most bully managers have never been taught how to coach employees in a manner that conveys confidence. They lack clarity about how to achieve success through strategies that help the worker build needed skills. They often do not believe that each person’s potential to achieve good work is unlimited (including their own). If the corporate suites of America’s workplace understood the simple and astonishing power imbedded in rightly designed systems, processes, and relationships at work, stress costs would plummet.

Blame and shame are two games played all too well at work by many who lead others. These managers are doing what they have been encouraged by their superiors, either passively or actively, to do. This “do it or else” unthinking management practice needs to change. Managers must learn to carve mistakes in sand and success in stone with those they supervise.

It’s time to replace arcane management styles with the workplace of the future. The new role of management will take on many more properties of the mentor/coach role, which is earned through trust gained in their ability to bring out the success of others. Companies will measure the success of managers by how well the individuals they manage succeed. Relationships will become reciprocal. “I coach you; you coach me on how we, working together, set up success and how we all connect.” Managers will indeed reduce anger, depression, avoidance, and passivity at work if they build positively reinforcing systems and processes to guide the human connections they establish.

Darnell Lattal, PhD, is the president and CEO of Aubrey Daniels International.

[From Connection Magazine September 2013]

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