ServiceExperts™: The Role of a Service Leader – Fostering a Culture of Dignity and Respect

Service Leader Culture

ServiceExperts™ is a series of contributing articles from recognized industry professionals offering their thoughts, viewpoints and opinions on the latest trends impacting the service industry. Mahesh Subramony, PhD is a professor of management at Northern Illinois University, where he teaches OB-HR topics including change management, leadership, management consulting, and talent development. His research examining the ongoing transformation of frontline service work, and the strategic value of HRM has appeared in top-ranked peer-reviewed publications. Mahesh has served as associate editor for multiple reputed service journals and is affiliate faculty with the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University. Mahesh has worked as an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist for two Fortune 500 companies; consulted with organizations including Manpower, Society for Human Resource Management, and Southwest Airlines; and spoken at practitioner forums on human capital analytics, future of work, and service transformations. 

Hearing a commotion near a service counter, the CEO walked over to investigate. He heard a customer berating an employee for not being able to provide certain specific details about a service. The customer was visibly angry, and the employee appeared helpless and scared. Quickly ascertaining the reason for the customer’s aggression, the CEO, who frequently visited various service locations, introduced himself and asked the customer how much they had paid for the service. He then proceeded to reimburse the customer and (here is where the story becomes unconventional) asked him to leave at once and to never return!

This is a true story with facts about the service, the organization, and the CEO omitted to protect the identity of the senior leader who narrated it to me. The narrator told me that the leader’s actions reverberated throughout the organization and reinforced the view that:

  1. While external customers were a key strategic focus of the organization, employees who served them on the frontlines were always to be treated with dignity and respect.
  2. That there was no room in the organization for bullies.

When I was asked to write about service leadership, I immediately recalled this story and its impact on the narrator, who at the time of the incident was not even employed with the organization. Leaders’ actions have a way of becoming stories, and these stories then become myths and legends – what the late organizational psychologist, Ed Schein called ‘cultural artifacts’, reinforcing the values that the organization upholds.

Yet, such stories are uncommon. There is evidence of an increase in incivility in public discourse, which has also spilled onto service establishments. Whether it be flight attendants who are yelled at and punched, or tow truck drivers who are in constant risk from driver aggression. The typical methods of addressing mistreatment perpetrated toward frontline employees can range from ignoring the issue to putting up notices requesting civil behaviors. However, authentic efforts to create a culture of service need to begin with leaders highlighting and embodying norms of dignity and respect.

This is not to say that only employees are deserving of dignity and respect. I have witnessed customers encounter negative service experiences from untrained, stressed, or apathetic employees. Here again, service leaders set norms for service excellence, and invest in designing and implementing customer-focused service processes. They also model the behaviors that they expect their employees to emulate (e.g., engaging in ‘low-level’ service tasks with a spirit of excellence, helping customers with differing abilities).

In my own research, I have found that even when employees are themselves not customer facing, having customer focused leaders can lead them to develop customer-oriented attitudes. Respect displayed by leaders toward customers is emulated by employees, and as numerous studies of the service-profit chain have found, employees reciprocate organizational support and respect with engagement and performance thus creating a positive spiral of service excellence.

In case you are wondering how such a culture can be established in your organization, remember the dictum by the distinguished service scholar Ben Schneider: “People make the place.”

Begin by attracting candidates for your open roles who exemplify the values of dignity and respect.  During the strategic planning process, discuss the importance of ‘dignity and respect toward employees and customers’ as key drivers of service culture, convert this into an organizational priority (with goals and metrics), and then communicate it as part of your brand.

As an example, Ritz-Carlton’s motto is “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen”. Your organization’s focus will then resonate with those who carry similar values, who will then be attracted to your organization and apply for frontline and managerial roles.

Next, select (and promote) the right candidates using behavioral interviewing and other structured selection methods. For instance, ask them about how they managed tradeoffs between human values and operational outcomes in their previous role, observe their behaviors toward other candidates in simulated problem-solving situations, and ask their referees questions about how they treat others during times of stress.

Finally, reward the selected (or promoted) individuals using what Bob Sutton calls the ‘No A****le Rule’, coaching and managing out those who do not meet the organizational expectations of dignity and respect. This will lead to the attrition of people who just do not fit. Thus, Ben Schneider’s Attraction-Selection-Attrition model gives us a gameplan for establishing a service culture.

Leaders are integral to the creation of service cultures, and their own behaviors toward employees and customers, as well as unwavering focus on dignity and respect in the workplace, can create the conditions for engaged employees and loyal customers. Yes, fostering these norms will occasionally require managing out employees and customers who do not treat each other the way they themselves would like to be treated. But the long-term investment in civility can create positive returns beside being – in itself– good for the soul. After all, service is humanity.

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