Tue | Jul 16, 2019

Francis Wade | How to encourage emotional labour

Published:Sunday | June 16, 2019 | 12:24 AM

Now and then I come across a quote that makes me stop and think, including this one from Seth Godin:

“The challenge that organisations have is that they haven’t trained, rewarded, or permitted their frontline employees to exert emotional labour to create human connection when it’s most needed.”

Here’s why Godin’s comment brought the local customer experience to mind.

Most Jamaicans who travel to the United States are struck by how well-trained service workers are. At first blush, it appears that they really know how to smile, be polite, and seem interested.

However, those who end up staying to live in North America tell a different tale. They recall a discovery: five minutes after a seemingly meaningful interaction, the provider can’t remember your face or name. It was all an act.

Where it comes from is obvious – those who have peeked behind the scenes say it’s the result of thorough training tightly coupled with swift, harsh consequences for non-compliance. It gets the right behaviour, but does it produce genuine feelings?

Contrast that situation with the experience of tourists who visit Jamaica repeatedly for several years, making lifelong friendships that start as chance encounters on the beach, village or bus. These extraordinary, unscripted stories end up bonding entire families from different cultures. Sometimes, they even cross generations in spite of the geographic distance.

How can these two contrasting experiences be reconciled by you, a manager who must develop staff to serve local customers? Godin’s quote offers a few clues.

Faking isn’t creating

I suspect that front-line workers in the US have been trained to “fake human connection” on demand – to go through the motions, following a set of actions they have memorised and practised. Unfortunately, they also haven’t learned to separate true emotion from fakery.

How to get past this obstacle?

If you believe that your front-line workers are acting the part but not actually creating authentic experiences, they may need deeper training. Noticing real emotions in the middle of a transaction isn’t easy, especially when the customer is upset. Most of us can’t. It takes a kind of emotional maturity few possess.

Doing feeling work

However, when we bump into someone who can regularly provide this experience in the worst of circumstances, we tend to think of their emotional maturity as a rare gift or talent. Unfortunately, this explanation puts them up on a pedestal, far beyond the reach of the unlucky majority.

Godin implies that this thinking is false. ‘Emotional labour’ is really what’s missing, he explains. It’s the trained effort most companies’ leaders just can’t be bothered to develop – the expense is too high. Their lack of care begins with haphazard hiring and continues with non-existent onboarding.

Employees who receive this basic training are left to their own devices, never given the tools to produce emotional results. Then, when problems occur, most managers simply blame the employee: they fail to accept responsibility.

But Godin goes further. He hints that many companies don’t even “permit” their front-line employees to provide emotional labour. They actually make it hard.

Have you ever received a quiet act of kindness from an employee who put himself in harm’s way to make an exception in your case? That’s someone who is working around the limits implemented by a blind, callous leadership.

Identifying moments

These subversives are not only brave, but wise. They can tell when a human connection is most needed and act decisively to provide it.

But they aren’t just interesting. These moments are extraordinary opportunities to create lasting loyalty. Perhaps they explain why these tourists return to visit their new-found “family” in Jamaica. Their initial link was so positive, and so unexpectedly real, that they end up feeling closer to a Jamaican front-line worker than their actual neighbours or office colleagues.

Can workers be trained to identify these key moments in a customer’s experience?

They can, but if your employees have childhoods pock-marked with trauma, it’s much harder to do so. Unfortunately, given the low pay of our service providers, many have experienced such hardships and won’t get over them on their own.

If management steps in and provides the counselling, training, and coaching needed to move past these obstacles, everyone benefits. The fact is, employees who are being trained to emotionally labour on behalf of customers who need a human connection need to deal with their own wounds first.

This puts them in the driver’s seat: able to respond to the customer without their history getting in the way. Now, they can deliberately create the kind of deep loyalty customers enjoy but rarely experience. It’s emotional labour that provides a win for all concerned.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns or give feedback, email columns@fwconsulting.com.