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5 "Dare to Lead" Insights for the Contact Center Leader

I just finished reading Dare to Lead, and I must say that I am a big fan of Brené Brown’s flavor of leadership. In the book, she takes the traditional command-and-control, power-wielding, unapproachable leader and proposes a better way—one that involves empathy, kindness, joy, vulnerability, gratitude, and clear communication. While there are so many incredible concepts and practices in this book, I’m going to put on my contact center leader cap and share the five that I found most insightful.

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome."

What does vulnerability look like for a contact center leader? Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

  • A server/computer/website went down and customers are unable to login to manage their account. The phone is ringing off the hook and many are taking to Twitter to voice their displeasure.
  • A key client took their business elsewhere or perhaps the business chose to relocate contact center operations to another city. Either way there are likely to be layoffs in the contact center.
  • A customer has called 3 times this week because the same issue continues to happen on their account and it’s not their fault. They don’t want any more promises. They want solutions or they’re going to cancel.

These are some of the more intense, pressure packed moments in the life of contact centers. During those times, how many of us leaders have considered hiding rather than showing up to work? Guilty as charged.

Later in the chapter she says, “To feel is to be vulnerable. Believing that vulnerability is weakness is believing that feeling is weakness.” As I reflect on these words, it’s freeing to know that as contact center leaders, though there will always be situations we can’t control, our ability to “show up” and respond with a sense of calm and vulnerability is contagious to the agents who must continue to take care of customers.

“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”

Another way she phrases this later in the book is, “Choosing politeness over respect is not respectful.” I can remember sitting across from Beth (not her real name) after she was late to work for the third day in a row without notice or good reason. As we discussed the issue I said something along the lines of, “Beth, I think you’re doing a great job when you’re here, but I need to be able to trust that you can work the hours you’re scheduled for. It’s not fair to the rest of the team to ask them to pick up the slack for you at one of the busiest times of the day.”

Given the fact that we had invested time and money hiring and training her, we didn’t want to lose her. And while this frank conversation didn’t drive the end result I hoped it would, as Beth left not long after, it was important to set clear expectations for her and the team. That’s one scenario where I did “clear is kind” well. What about the person on the team who shows up to work grouchy every morning and wonders why no one likes them, or how about that agent who lacks certain people skills and doesn’t understand why they were passed over for a promotion? We aren’t doing our agents any favors if we can’t communicate clearly with them about how they can succeed.

“Gratitude. They (daring leaders) practice gratitude. It’s not an ‘attitude of gratitude’—it’s an actual practice”

In section three of the book, Brown compares many of the qualities of daring leaders with those of armored leaders, presenting positive alternatives to many negative leadership behaviors. The one that stuck out most to me compared armored leaders who are “Working from scarcity and squandering opportunities for joy and recognition” and daring leaders who are “Practicing gratitude and celebrating milestones and victories.” She says, “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we feel” and goes on to talk about how so many leaders fear showing joy and recognition because it’s fragile and fleeting.

Translating this thinking to a contact center leader, why would I praise an agent because they delighted a customer when they will likely have a dissatisfied customer tomorrow? Why would I reward my team for perfect attendance when someone will probably call out sick tomorrow? Why would we celebrate meeting service levels today when we’ll probably miss tomorrow. The list could go on and on. Brown instead encourages daring leaders to practice gratitude and shares this practical tip: “Something as simple as starting or ending meetings with a gratitude check, when everyone shares one thing they’re grateful for, can build trust and connection.”

What contact center couldn’t benefit from a dose of joy and gratitude?

“Empathy creates a hostile environment for shame — an environment it can’t survive in, because shame needs you to believe you’re alone and it’s just you.”

Brené Brown refers to empathy as a “skill” and notes that our ability to understand the feelings of another and communicate understanding “is as critical as having language.” Empathy is often a topic in contact centers, especially in the context of agents attempting to make meaningful connections with customers during interactions. But have you ever considered shame as being the opposite of empathy?

Let’s think about the following common customer service interaction. A customer calls to pay their bill because their account has been suspended. At a surface level, they are rude, angry, and upset. The empathetic agent, instead of taking offense, aims to connect with the underlying emotions and reasons the customer is upset. Perhaps the customer intended to pay their bill when they got home but was preoccupied with a sick child and completely forgot. The next day, their boss called and yelled at them for a mistake, causing them to feel shame. The customer then takes the shame out on the contact center agent.

Brown challenges us to use empathy to alleviate the customer’s feeling of shame. It’s as if to say, “I totally understand that these sorts of mistakes happen. You’re definitely not alone.” What a sense of relief to the other person when we communicate that message.

“A value is a way of being or believing that we hold most important.”

In the book, Brown challenges us to establish and understand our values both individually and as organizations — and she has a long list to choose from. She notes that, “Only about 10 percent of organizations have operationalized their values into teachable and observable behaviors that are used to train their employees and hold them accountable.” She then challenges readers to define three to four behaviors that support these values and then three to four more behaviors to avoid that run counter to our values.

Have you ever worked in a contact center that had the values painted on the wall but the reality was that no one actually knew what they meant? Regardless of the values you select, it’s important to determine the behaviors that support and achieve those values and gain buy in from the entire organization. Brown points out that, “Sharing values is a massive trust and connection builder for teams.”

Putting this into practice, let’s imagine your company has a value of being “customer centric.” Thinking through associated behaviors, agents should be empowered to take care of customers and they should be expected to listen to customers, taking meaningful action based on their feedback. Furthermore, any practice that runs counter to this value should be avoided, right?

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As I conclude, let me reiterate that there’s a whole lot more to this book than I’ve highlighted here. Dare to Lead is a worthwhile read for any contact center leader. For those of you that have read it, what were your favorite insights? Share them with us on Twitter @CallCenterICMI.