How to Help Employees Exert Emotional Labour

The challenge that organizations
have is that they haven’t trained, rewarded or permitted their frontline
employees to exert emotional labor to create human connection when it’s most
needed. Seth Godin

Now and then I come across a quote
which makes me stop and think. Here’s why this one 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

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

Contrast that situation with the
experience of tourists who visit Jamaica repeatedly for several years, making
lifelong friendships which start with 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.

1. Faking isn’t Creating

I suspect that frontline 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 memorized and
practiced. 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.

2. 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

“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 themselves 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.

3. 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 newfound “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 labor which provides a win for all concerned.

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