Customer Service Leadership and Parallel Processes

Twenty years ago, I received couple therapy training from one of the preeminent masters in the field who had a unique approach to teaching and supervision. He believed the manner in which a therapist presented a case in supervision paralleled the couple’s faulty dynamic. If a couple was angry and explosive, the therapist often sounded irritable and intense when presenting the case in supervision. The therapist of a passive and distant couple would sound helpless and indifferent. Our teacher’s approach was to convey his suggestions to the therapist in the supervision group in the exact manner and style in which he wanted the therapist to interact with the couple. If the couple, and consequently the therapist were too passive and indifferent, our supervisor would become extremely animated, raise his voice, move around the room and wave his hands as he spoke to the therapist about their case. If the couple was explosive and the therapist too intense and stirred up, our teacher would instruct them to present the case over again but to do so in a slow whisper.

These exercises and demonstrations of parallel process were effective ways to get the therapist and consequently, the couple to change their dynamic and interactional styles. My years teaching and supervising couple therapy and the attention I gave to emotional and psychological parallel processes in the supervision process heavily influenced my views on customer service, corporate culture and leadership and especially consumer psychology and they informed my thinking when writing The Squeaky Wheel.

Parallel processes are not only common in couple therapy training and supervision groups, they are features of all human systems and organizations. Parallel process in workplace environments operate in extremely similar ways. The emotional tone, communication style and relational dynamics that upper management convey in their interactions with middle management and through them to a company’s front line customer service representatives are always be mirrored to some degree or another in how customer service representatives interact with customers.

Such ideas are confirmed by studies in numerous domains. For example, one study demonstrated that when call-center employees feel unjustly treated by their supervisors the ‘injustice’ trickles down to the employees’ treatment of customers (Rupp et. a., 2006).

In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman states, “Leaders set much of the emotional tone that flows through the halls of their organizations; this is turn has consequences for how well the collective objectives are met. Leaders need to nurture “social wisdom,” the qualities that allow the people we connect with in the workplace to flourish” (Goleman 2006, 315).

Corporate culture therefore encompasses not just a company’s stated values, ideals, and beliefs; it is embedded in the dynamics of how company leaders communicate and interact with managers and employees through the ranks. In other words, it is not what compan leaders say, it is what they do that create parallel processes of psychological and emotional dynamics that ripple down the company hierarchy to have a direct impact on their customer service representatives and consequently on their customers.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

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Denhardt, Robert B. and Denhardt, Janet V. 2006. The Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in Business, Government, and Society. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Goleman, Daniel. 2006. Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Rupp, D. E. et al, 2006. When customers lash out. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91 (4) pp. 91-978