PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY…Empowering the Front Line


It was obvious that the chap wanted to do something about the situation. But it was equally clear that there was something preventing him from going ahead. After a few minutes, it was evident that whatever was preventing the gentleman from solving the problem was much more powerful than his desire to do something to put a smile on a customer’s face. The look on his face said it all.

On the face of it, it looked like a very easy decision to make. There had been a mistake in the booking which had resulted in the customer needing to be moved to another room. However, the problem was that the new room was going to be an upgrade—and the customer was not prepared to pay the extra money. It was just for the night. The new room was unoccupied. All the manager on duty was to do was to check the customer into the new room. Simple? Apparently not.

By its very nature, customer service is an exercise in managing uncertainties. Things occasionally go wrong and when they do, it is expected that those given the responsibility of handling customers are able to do something about the situation. Excellent customer service demands that front line staff go out of their way to sort out challenges as and when those challenges arise.

Having spent years at the front line, I know that on many occasions we know the solutions to the challenges. However, one must seek permission from an immediate superior who might also need to seek further permission from someone higher the chain. It is this baton-changing relay race that keeps a customer waiting for what seems like an eternity before a solution to the problem is found.

We live in times when time is such a scarce commodity that organisations that waste customer’s time will not make a favourable impression on customers. Customers want great service and they want it now. Empowered front line employees are able to solve problems right when it happens, thereby saving the customer time and saving the organisation face.

However, before customer-handling employees will feel free to do the things they need to in order to serve customers well, there is a need for these employees to know that they have the support of the organisation. There is a name for that support or security. Psychologists refer to it as Psychological Safety. It is that assurance that one can take a risk without being punished, if things do not go as planned. The concept was discovered in 1999 by Amy Edmondson, a professor at the Harvard Business School.

Ask any well-meaning customer-handling employee and the one will tell you how important psychological safety is. To be able to do something to help a bad situation without fearing that if things do not go well, you will be punished is a very refreshing feeling. It puts a spring in the step of the customer-handling employee. It is like a safety net that is placed under the feet of the tightrope walker. You have no plans of falling but you know that if you fall, you are not going to break your neck.

Research has shown that there is a lot an organization can gain when its customer-facing employees are empowered and feel psychologically safe. For instance, customer service employees in such an organization tend to be more creative. There are times when the problem at hand requires a creative solution—something not found in a policy manual. It will take a staff who feels psychologically safe and is empowered enough to solve the problem to satisfaction of the customer.

Closely related to the use of creativity in solving problems, is a general culture of innovation in the psychologically-safe working environment. It is only natural that when people know that they are not going to be punished if they try new things and fail, people become more innovative. They are not afraid to try new things.

The story is told of a young engineer at American multinational conglomerate, General Electric (GE) who caused a chemical explosion that blew the roof off the building he worked in. He was so shaken by the experience. As he drove the distance to the corporate headquarters to report the matter to his superiors, he feared the worst. However, when he got there, he was pleasantly surprised at the behaviour of his boss. These are his own words about the experience: “Charlie’s reaction made a huge impression on me…..If we’re managing good people who are clearly eating themselves up over an error, our job is to help them through it.”

This young engineer was none other than the venerable Jack Welch, who eventually turned out to be one of the greatest CEOs of GE. Fortune magazine at a point described Welch as “the most widely admired, studied, and imitated CEO of his time.” I cannot help but wonder what would have happened to Jack Welch if he had been berated and punished for that accident.

Organisations that lead their market are known to have a culture where there is continuous learning. Training and coaching is something that is constant within such companies. It is interesting to note that researchers have found that when staff are psychologically safe, they tend to learn more. When the culture of fear pervades the organisation, employees do not have the peace of mind to learn new things.

Creating psychologically-safe working environments does not come easy. Management must put in the effort to create such conditions. It is a bit easier if the organisation is a start-up. In that case, the culture of “freedom to try new things” can be birthed from Day 1. New employees will enter a culture that is open and that promotes individual excellence.

However, if the organisation has been existence for years and the culture of “fear to innovate” has pervaded the organisation, then the work becomes a lot more arduous. In this case, managers must put in a lot more effort. New policies must be instituted and staff must see these policies working. The channels for frank and fearless communication must be opened up and down the company.

Managers must encourage staff to go out of their way to solve customer problems on the spot, if practicable. It also helps if awards are given for customer-facing employees who are able to use their sense of empowerment to serve customers well. Special rewards can be given to customer service employees who are creative and innovative in serving customers.

So with all the many merits associated with psychological safety, why are front line staff not made to feel safe to do what needs to be done? Because it is risky. Even very risky in some cases. If customer service employees are given these freedoms, things can go really bad if care is not taken. A blank cheque for freedom can result in staff doing things that can cause the company money. There are cases where companies have been taken to court just because of the actions of customer service employees. If the organisation is a health care facility, then the stakes are very high. Lives will be at stake when mistakes are committed by customer service employees.

Interestingly, there is proof that when customer-facing employees are empowered and given the freedom to serve customers the way they see fit, mistakes actually go up. However, Prof. Amy Edmondson argues that the increase in the number of mistakes being committed could actually be as a result of increase in reporting of mistakes, not in new mistakes being committed.

The argument is that when people know that they will not get punished for mistakes they commit, they will willingly come forward to report mistakes and mishaps. In the reverse therefore, when people know that they will be punished for their mistakes, the tendency is for them to hide their mistakes. Mistakes that are hidden cannot be easily corrected. In other words, when customer-facing employees report their mistakes without a fear of punishment, they learn to perform better next time.

Another reason given by managers for not empowering front line employees is because these managers are of the opinion that doing so would send the wrong signals. The belief is that people can commit mistakes in the company and get away with it. Staff might begin to get complacent and this can, and actually does, result in more mistakes being committed.

Experts advise that one way to go about this is to give these freedoms gradually. From the onset, limits can be set to put some checks on what front line staff can do with their own discretion.

This is similar to what some banks do where cashiers or tellers are given limits below which they can pay without resorting to an immediate superior. Beyond a certain limit, however, the teller must go straight to the immediate superior for advice.

Constant on-the-job training is also important to ensure that the mistakes committed by customer-handling employees are lessened.

This must however be done tactfully so that employees do not see it as if they are being micromanaged. In my experience, it is not fun when your manager is breathing down your neck as you serve customers.

When things go wrong and an employee has to be corrected, it is important that this is done with tact and decorum.

The rule of thumb is to correct privately and to praise publicly. Employees should be made to know that the organisation “has their back” at all times. A show of confidence in the employee’s ability gives the one the confidence to give off his or her very best.

From the ongoing, it is clear that there cannot be a formulaic approach to solving this dilemma. Every business must decide the relative freedoms and checks that it gives to its customer-handling employees.

Too much freedom, as we have seen, can result in an increase in the mistakes committed leading to problems for the business. However, too much checks can also result in a stifling of the creativity of employees.

Customer service employees become human vending machines or robots that only do as they are ordered—not willing to use their mind—eventually leading to the dissatisfaction of customers.

Back to the opening vignette, the supervisor on duty eventually got the customer into the new upgraded room.

He tried making a few calls but it was to no avail. Probably because it was quite late in the night. However, after a while, he took matters into his own hands and solved the problem for the customer.

He took a risk to satisfy a customer. That would not have been necessary if there was psychological safety in that organisation.

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