Strengths for the front line

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HALM
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

…The importance of signature strengths

Dr. Martin Seligman, the man widely identified as the Father of Positive Psychology, differentiates between two traits that make up one’s character—talents and strengths. According to the famed psychology professor, one key difference between the two is that strengths are moral traits while talents are non-moral traits. Talents seem more inherent—and though they can be improved, any improvement is only minimal at best. Strengths, on the other hand, are those that can be built on. Also an individual is automatically able to call on whatever talents he or she has. It, however, takes an act of the will to call on a strength. For instance, it takes an act of will to refuse to a bribe.

In Authentic Happiness, the book Dr. Seligman used to launch the entire Positive Psychology movement, twenty-four strengths were identified. These strengths are grouped under six clusters—Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Humanity and Love, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence.
The wonderful thing about the Authentic Happiness book (and its accompanying website) is that it gives readers an opportunity to take a test, purposely aimed at determining the reader’s strengths. By the time the test is over, an individual is able to identify his or her top strengths. These are what are referred to as Signature Strengths.

But why is it important for an individual to discover his or her Signature Strengths? What will that knowledge do for the one?

According to Dr. Seligman, it is in using one’s signature strengths every day in the main realms of the one’s life that leads to abundant gratification and “authentic happiness”. In other words, if what you are doing on a daily basis does not call on your greatest strengths, you would not be authentically happy. Regardless of how successful you become in that area of your life.

One of the main realms of life is one’s work life—how one makes a living. We spend a greater part of waking hours involved in what we do for work. This means that if we want to find joy in our work, it is important that we deploy our signature strengths in doing what we do.

If there is one group of people who need to find joy and satisfaction in their work, it must those whose emotions are part of the customer’s experience. These are customer-facing or frontline employees. It does not matter how well a product performs or how well a service is designed and delivered, if the front line employee is not authentically happy, it eventually shows. It is very difficult for front line employees to mask their emotions, especially when those emotions are being faked. Customers are able to see through whatever masks the customer-facing employee puts on.

One of the biggest problems facing every business is the lack of engagement of employees. Employee engagement has been defined as the extent to which employees feel so passionate about what they do to the point of putting in more than what is expected of them. It is also seen by many as the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward the work. Employee engagement is a widely-studied subject.

According to an online publication in March 2020 by Washington DC-based analytics and advisory company, Gallup, only 15% of employees are engaged worldwide. The effects of employee disengagement can be very telling on the fortunes of the organisation. Studies have found that disengaged employees were less likely to put in their very best efforts. These are the staff who come to work already demotivated and were more likely not to meet their targets. An article published in the December 2015 edition of the Harvard Business Review claimed that disengaged employees cause 60% more errors at work than engaged employees. According to a February 2017 publication by Gallup, 73% of actively disengaged employees are on the lookout for new jobs or opportunities.

In short, the low productivity of disengaged employees is a serious threat to the profitability of any organisation. In fact, 86% of employees in high performing companies are highly engaged, as opposed to just 68% of employees in under-performing organisations. This is according to Massachusetts-based, leading customer experience (CX) research, consulting, and training firm, Temkin Group.

When disengaged employees happen to be placed at the frontline, the consequences can be much graver. It is widely accepted that customer experience and employee experience are closely related. The more engaged employees are, the happier they make their customers. There are even reports that show that companies that excel at customer service have 1.5 times more engaged employees than companies with poor customer service. Temkin Group claims that 79% of employees at companies with above-average customer experience are highly engaged in their jobs, with only 49% of employees in below-average customer experience being engaged on the job.

The importance of employee engagement is something that cannot be overemphasised. It is therefore in the interest of every organisation to keep its employees engaged. This is where Signature Strengths come in. According to Dr. Martin Seligman, employees can recraft even the most boring job into a calling by using their Signature Strengths more at work. First of all, by discovering one’s Signature Strengths, the one is able to know if his or her strengths are suitable for the job of the front line.

For instance, one of the twenty-four strengths identified under the Wisdom and Knowledge Category is Social Intelligence/Personal Intelligence/Emotional Intelligence. It is about knowing one’s own self and also being able to read the emotions of others. Without a knowledge of what makes one tick, one always stands the chance of wrongly reacting to an incident. This strength is also what makes a customer-facing employee easily notice that there is a problem with a customer. Based on that knowledge, this customer service employee can then adapt his or her emotions to suit that of the customer. Having spent years at the front line, I can tell you that this is one of the most important strengths to have at the front line.

Then there is Curiosity/Interest in the World. This is definitely a strength that would be very much needed at the front line. This is a strength that would enable the front line employee to seek to know customers beyond just the superficial level. It is common knowledge that the more information an organisation has on its customers, the greater the chances of the organisation coming out with products and services that are specifically tailored to the needs of those customers.

Closely related to Curiosity/Interest in the World is Love of Learning. This is also a very useful strength to have for a front line employee. Whether the individual is in sales, marketing or customer service, it is important for the one to be a student for life. Front line employees must learn new things every day, including names of new customers, competitor and industry information, product information, etc. A strength such as a love of learning new things can really come in handy in the line of duty for the front line employee.

An ability to think things through and examine them from all sides before jumping to conclusion is a virtue that every customer-facing employee needs. It is common to hear stories of front line employees who got into trouble just because they made wrong assumptions about customers. This strength is also under the Wisdom and Knowledge Category and is categorised as Judgment/Critical Thinking/Open-Mindedness.

Customer service is about thinking on one’s feet and finding solutions to customer challenges. There are times when what is needed to solve the customer’s problem cannot be found in any operations manual or service handbook. The customer-handling must therefore think outside the box to solve the problem. The strength for that is also found among the twenty-four strengths. This is Ingenuity/Originality/Practical Intelligence/Street Smarts.

Customer service is hard work. Any individual who has spent just one day at the front desk knows that. Dealing with people, with different needs and different temperaments, can be very tedious. Every customer service professional needs lots of stamina to last at the front office. The particular strength to help in this vein is termed Perseverance/Industry/Diligence. This is one of strengths classified under the Courage Category.

Another of the Courage strengths is Integrity/Genuineness/Honesty. This is a virtue that everyone needs, not just customer service workers. Candour is very important to leave a positive mark in life. It can make or mar a business’s relationship with its customers. It is this strength that makes customer service professionals keep the promises they make to their customers. Employees who lack this particular strength can even find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Under the Humanity and Love category of strengths is Kindness and Generosity. Without this strength, it is almost impossible for an individual to survive at the front line. To exude the warmth that draws customers, an individual must possess this particular strength.

There are many more of the strengths but I believe these few have made the point about the importance of these strengths. The full list can be found in the Authentic Happiness book or on the accompanying website https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu.

One of the important lessons from this discussion is that HR people must consider an individual’s signature strengths when employing, especially for the front line. Fortunately, the Survey of Character Strengths used in Authentic Happiness is available for free on the book’s website. So as part of the recruitment process, all potential employees can take this test. The results can be very helpful to placement and subsequent integration of new employees into the organisation. But by the way, the test might take a few minutes. There are 240 questions to answer.

I took the test and my greatest strengths are Spirituality/Sense of Purpose/Faith. My second greatest strengths are Creativity/Ingenuity/Originality. That is not surprising, considering the fact that I have been writing this column for more than twelve years, and still counting. It takes strength.

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