I hope you don’t have this employee in your organization–but if you do, you probably have no idea that they’re there, gleefully alienating customers 9-5. I’m talking about the situational tyrant, the customer-facing employee who takes the power they have to say “no” and runs with it.
While most anti-customer behavior is served up by well-intentioned, if misguided, employees who lack training or finesse, there is a more unsavory scenario to watch out for. Any organization or department can become a breeding ground for what I call (in my customer service consulting practice) situational tyrants—employees who have the power to say no within their tiny kingdoms, and who exercise that power every chance they get. When a customer is looking for even a tiny bit of flexibility, a situational tyrant will slam the rulebook down with sadistic pleasure.
Here are four ways to avoid breeding and empowering situational tyrants.
1. Hire appropriately. Strive to select applicants for customer-facing positions who have the requisite personality traits for superior customer service. (More on hiring the best customer-facing employees here.)
2. Don’t misunderstand, and don’t let your employees misunderstand, empowerment. The kind of empowerment that great companies embrace shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a license to kiss off a challenging or “noncompliant” (as they say in healthcare) customer. On the contrary, the kind of empowerment you should be encouraging employees to exercise should almost always be in favor of a customer. Going against the customer, if it’s necessary, should require deliberation and team or management involvement. Consider adopting Commerce Bank’s approach: “It takes one employee to say yes, two to say no.”
3. Trust but verify. The way that a situational tyrant behaves in the presence of a person in power, such as a company leader, may be far different from how they act when they’re out of earshot of the boss, especially if the tyrant’s alone with a customer whom they believe to be powerless. So, it’s important for leaders to have an ear to the ground, listening to what other employees may be saying, since a leader may have trouble witnessing and uncovering situational tyranny themselves. And once you do witness the tyrannical behavior, it’s essential to act quickly, as your other employees will be watching for your response.
4. Counsel (very directly, if necessary). Some tyrannical employees will never recognize the need to change until you’re extraordinarily direct with them. I wouldn’t rush to assume that any employee is permanently set in their tyrannical ways until you lay things out for them in black and white. And this way, if they do fail to improve after the situation is made clear to them, at least you’ll know you gave them every opportunity.
One final note: it’s outside the scope of this article, but situational tyranny in the treatment of employees by a supervisor is a similar, and similarly serious, problem in many organizations.