SOCAP Article Archive

Moral Leadership in the Contact Center

Oct 16, 2019, 13:03 PM

Mike Dershowitz

As members of SOCAP, we rightly spend a lot of time talking about best practices, technical information, and customer-centric topics. As managers of call centers, these are all things that we deeply care about because we always want to improve our practice and get better. Have you ever felt that these topics—the majority of our discussions at SOCAP—are too safe? Should we be considering more with regard to call center management? I think so, and I think it’s time to take a deeper look at not just how our call centers behave but also why. Now is the time to tackle one of the least safe topics in our industry: morality and moral leadership in the contact center.

If I asked you whether there was a sense of right and wrong (i.e., morality) in your call center, what would you say? If I asked your agents, what would they say?

In this article, I help you ponder why moral thinking should be in your contact center, how to identify it, and what to do if it is not there.

Morality Defined

It’s a word thrown about. There is a long line of philosophers who have made a large and earnest inquiry and exposition on morality. Many great minds have pondered the difference between right and wrong and how as humans we should treat each other. This is morality at its essence.

If you haven’t read Yuval Harari’s landmark book, Homo Sapiens, you should. Harari does an excellent job of showing how Homo sapiens have evolved to become the dominant species on the planet.

One of the many things Harari argues is that our ability to create and grasp ideas on a large scale is responsible for our dominance. He also argues that morality is what separates us from beasts. Ideas, including a sense of right and wrong and fairness, is what makes us Homo sapiens.

We have all been taught about right and wrong from an early age. We receive that moral system from our parents first, and then it evolves with our peers throughout our life. As you can see from the world around you, the process is rife with complications and corruptions that set all of us on a future path where we constantly grapple with our own personal, professional, and societal sense of morality.

We go back and forth between right and wrong in every situation, and for most of us, we do a good job of keeping it pretty consistent. Our morality and moral choices govern our behavior and especially how we react to and interact with our fellow 7.5 billion Homo sapiens on this planet.

You may not know it, but in the contact center, morality underpins how you accomplish your goals.

Morality Is Already in Your Call Center

We all lament and complain about “toxic” employees and “wrong” behavior and how it “pollutes” work environments. By now, it should be clear that our shared and individual morality is driving that choice of language. Toxic employees who are polluting our work environment are really violating our innate sense of morality of how our fellow Homo sapiens should behave toward each other in the workplace. When you deem an employee as such, you are deeming them immoral.

This is good, by the way, because it means that there is probably a moral framework already functioning in your workplace, at least partially expressed in your employee handbook. But have you thought about what’s in your handbook in moral terms? You should. If you do, you can easily inject a sense of fairness and justice into your workplace. I have done it through our Agent Bill of Rights, and now it lives on and is applied daily on its own without my intervention.

Morality is also in your call center if you’re meeting your agents’ basic human needs. By now, you’re probably sick of hearing about Abraham Maslow, but his work was so seminal that we must revisit it and fit his framework to the evolution of Homo sapiens. Remember that Maslow says basic needs come first, and then Homo sapiens can consider other things, such as morality and self-actualization.

Most of you are meeting the basic needs of the agents in your center (but not all of you—see Thereafter, your agents’ training gleaned from their parents and peers kicks in, and they seek— because of years of conditioning—a sense of fairness and right and wrong in our shared workplace. If you’re not meeting their basic needs, their conditioning will erupt and show you that what you’re doing is unfair.

Immorality vs. Amorality

When employees behave against the desired outcome, their behavior is either immoral or amoral. Immoral behavior is that which violates an existing moral principle, like what we deem right or wrong as a society, especially as it relates to fairness between Homo sapiens.

Amoral behavior, by contrast, is behavior that exists outside the framework of a particular morality. It is not right or wrong, it just is. When an agent should do “A” in reaction to a caller but does “B” instead, that agent is just not following his or her training, but it’s not necessarily immoral behavior; it’s amoral—they just did it wrong but didn’t upset the right and wrong of society or another Homo sapiens.

Your frustration when agents don’t behave as expected occurs because you don’t understand why they are or aren’t doing things. Is their behavior immoral (violating a sense of fairness or justice) or amoral (just wrong against a set standard needed to accomplish your goals)? When evaluating any behaviors by your agents, you should try and see the morality (i.e., the why) behind their actions. It will lessen your frustration, temper your reaction, and make you a better manager.

I encourage you to always evaluate your agents’ behavior based on differences in personality and on their personal circumstances. That is one of the first steps to creating a moral work environment. It will also foster a sense of “fairness” in your workplace, and that will promote the behaviors you seek, whether moral or amoral.

Managers, Agents, or Beggars?

Adam Smith, the famous Scottish economist, is poorly remembered for what I would argue is his best book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published two decades before The Wealth of Nations.

In Sentiments, Smith first uses the term the “invisible hand.” The passage where he uses it is so instructive as to how your call center functions that I must reprint it in its entirety:

They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.

Smith is saying two things. First, when spoils are divided evenly among a society, morality reigns through an invisible hand. When everyone has nothing, everyone is a beggar, fairness is inherent, and security is assured within the society. This is what we want people to feel within our contact center (don’t take the “beggar” part too literally).

Second, inequality between humans within society creates immorality. People who feel wronged or violated by others are victims of immoral behavior, and they will feel anger and regret, and possibly want revenge. This is not what we want in our contact center.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have managers in our contact centers and that everyone should be equal. In the modern world, managers are essential for many reasons, which I’ll not go into here. But what you must recognize is that our industry has a bad reputation, and it’s because of the productive imperative that we divide ourselves into these three classes: Managers (Kings), Agents (Laborers, elsewhere in Smith’s text—those who produce), and Beggars (whom we should all be in our application of morality).

This is a gross oversimplification, but thinking about everyone in the call center in terms of these three classes, and who they are at that moment of behavior, versus who they are in your society, will greatly influence how you, the Manager, reacts to their behavior. When you judge their behavior in terms of being the Beggar (fairness) versus the Laborer (productive) versus the King (aggressor and divider), you will see who is really behaving morally and who is not.  Understanding morality first, and then reacting morally to it, will make you the moral leader.

Like It or Not, You Are a King

Your personality may be that of the Beggar or the Laborer, but if you’re a manager in the contact center, by moral definition, you are a King. You control resource distribution, and thus, whether your contact center is moral, immoral, or amoral.

Before the time of the modern economy, the best Kings promoted fair resource distribution and production and did not plunder the countryside for their needs. They chose wholistic social progress. Any Game of Thrones fan will instantly see it as the epic justice-for-all allegory that it was (no matter how bad the ending was—Tyrion and Bran were always the wise ones promoting justice).

You have the power to create morality and fairness in your workplace because you control resource distribution. My job is not to give you a moral framework (though Rethink’s Agent Bill of Rights is a good start —please steal it) but simply to show you that, more than likely, this framework is already within you. We all inherently understand the difference between right and wrong and how to act toward our fellow Homo sapiens, and thus within our larger society. Morality is all around us and within us—this cannot be denied.

As managers, your job is to elicit the “right” behavior at scale, repeatedly. Not an easy ask, as your life’s work in a contact center probably attests. In reality, that’s what you’re paying your agents for—behaving the way you want them to behave in reaction to a particular customer situation. Like it or not, producing the right behaviors in agents is your chosen profession.

Are you neglecting your most powerful weapon in this quest? Simply put, agents must know why they are doing things. If they view that why as fair and moral, it’s much easier for them to do their jobs.

The question isn’t whether or not you know. The question is, what will you do?

DershowitzMike Dershowitz is the CEO of Rethink – Fair Trade Outsourcing, a company he founded in the Philippines and later in Philadelphia. His company provides value-added services to firms looking to hire skilled tech workers and customer support specialists as extensions of their business operations. He chose to build Rethink's service centers in developing populations to help workers from minority groups and economically challenged sectors.