North American Customer Service Management Association

Support for Contact Center Professionals

Step 2 Identify Dysfunction

A company’s corporate culture can become dysfunctional for many reasons. Culture can become a liability when the rules and boundaries established by culture do not advance the effectiveness of the organization.

Corporate culture refers to the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company's employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions. Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires.

Companies that have been around for a long time find their culture of security, non-risk taking, and limited vision of the future is a barrier to change. This happens when long-standing cultures are forced to operate in a rapidly changing environment. They are stuck in the past and can’t be nimble in response to the fast-changing market.

Companies that have more internal competition than external competition do not progress as a company. Companies with internal teams that are in a constant fight with one another over executive support and resources all obstruct progress. These companies stagnate in their growth.

Other symptoms of a dysfunctional culture are turnover. Have you lost more than 20% of your workforce to voluntary turnover? How many managers have you lost? Have you taken note of the “stories” that are shared and seem to be legendary? What about the story of the site manager’s epic blowup over the over-time schedule? What do these stories tell? Is the bureaucracy stifling the production? What does it take to get policy and procedures approved? Is it too slow; requires too many approvals? And finally, creative innovative thinking and entrepreneurial mindset is a stated value, yet no one takes your suggestions seriously. No wonder you have agents and managers grumbling and leaning.

You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. Ask a few questions to diagnosis the culture at your site.

Here is an honest set of questions that Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, created to identify culture. You can’t change something if you don’t know what you have.

These questions help determine what you have now. The answers may surprise you. With this feedback, you decided if this is the desired culture or not. In the case of a large bank recently, bad behavior started with one banker and unintentionally morphed into a company-wide culture. By taking a conscious approach to managing culture, perhaps the bank could have averted the company-wide fraud.

- What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
- Where and who do people actually spend resources like time, money and attention?
- What rules and expectations are followed, enforced and ignored?
- Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
- What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
- What stories are legendary? What values do they convey?
- What happens when someone fails? Disappoints? Or makes a mistake?
- How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
- How are uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure perceived?

A very large bank experienced employee fraud. Most likely it started with one banker and it organically grew to 5500 bankers across the US over a few years. Corporate culture whether good or bad is like a cancer cell that mutates. When it’s bad, radiation is a must at stage one. There is dysfunctional culture and then their fraudulent culture – both will eat you alive in time.

Culture starts with the leadership team. Culture is shaped mostly by “how” leaders act, not so much by what they say. How managers behave sends the unspoken messages of “how we work here.” The bank managers told retail bankers to make sales happen no matter what, and oh, by the way complete these compliance courses. This was a mixed message to those bankers. Bankers under so much pressure to make a sale, they opened fake accounts and bank managers had a blind eye to the false sales and failed to enforce (behave) compliance polices and procedures. When one banker got away with it then so did the next and by the time they were caught, there were 5500 employees involved.

The CEO set the goal “Eight is Great” just because he liked how the phrase rhymed and was catchy. His number of eight sales a day wasn’t based on any forecast. The pressure to sell eight accounts (even thou unrealistic) and sales expectations started at the very top of the bank – the CEO.

This is a great example of how the leader at the top misguided the team. While it wasn’t meant to be malicious it set the tone for what was expected. What is your leadership team not only saying but doing? What is your site manager doing? How about the contact center managers? Take an honest look at how managers are behaving and this will tell you a lot about the current culture. Is it what you desire?

You are the change agent. You can use real-time day-to-day interactions for teaching and reinforcing the values. You convert agents one at time and eventually there will be critical mass when the entire management team is singing the same songs. Songs, or messages that always tie the conversation back to the values. Ed, the site manager observed agents were stretching out their 10-minute morning break to 20 minutes. He stopped one day where the agents were sitting outside and stated, “if we are going to be the contact center for others to emulate we can’t be coming back late from breaks”. The value in this example is to be the site that others look up to and use as a standard of excellence. Those agents made the connection to from what they wanted the site to become to their own behavior. They drank the Kool-Aid willingly.

Culture starts at the top. The attitude, beliefs and behaviors are passed down from one level to the next and finally to the front line. Attitude and behavior never travels up the ladder, only down. Change the attitude and behavior at the top and watch your supervisors and agents change theirs.

A large bank loan-closing department was a minefield. This is the group that sends out the loan documents to the borrowers for signatures. You can imagine the pressure to meet closing deadlines. When Processors and Loan Officers went over to the closing department to assist they got their heads chewed off. Supervisors were rude, disrespectful and just plain nasty. Closers were difficult to work with. Processors stopped helping and processing supervisors had to get involved, but everyone was afraid of a verbal assault.

This attitude was traced back to the top of the management chain within the closing department. It wasn’t throughout the company just at one location. One day there was a regime change; two new assistant vice presidents (AVP) showed up to replaced the one tyrant Vice President and these two AVP’s touted a different message; a message of collaboration. They welcomed the support of Processors and Loan Officers; they created new policy and procedures to encourage partnership and cooperation. Processors and Loan Officers found it to be pleasant to interact with people at all levels of the closing department which led to more cooperation which of course led to more loans closing on time with less stress. Hurray for Teamwork!

If you can’t change the attitude, behaviors and beliefs of the management team, perhaps you want to replace them with a more effective team. Change the management team and you will change the culture.

The company’s mission statement is filled with values and culture statements can be empty phrases unless backed up with some action.

In the daily team huddle, agents hear messages about company values, culture initiatives (work/life balance for example), policy and procedure updates and metric review. Communicate consistently the values, culture and behaviors explicitly that are desired. Repeat, repeat and repeat the messages again and again. The messaging never stops once you let your foot off the gas or your cultural revolution will lose momentum.

One strategy to give your culture some energy is to take the time to reward employees you identify that are advancing the desired culture and be honest with those you don’t. By rewarding those that are modeling the behavior you desire, it will continue with those you reward and it will also be contagious to those that want to be rewarded. Another strategy is to have serious conversations with those employees that are not progressing the culture. You can’t ignore those, they are like cancer cells and when left untreated will only mutate. This is how culture turns from pleasant and productive to dismal and reckless.


You are the Example. Your behavior is the first step in changing a dysfunctional culture. Exemplify the values: what and how you communicate, what you choose to reward, how you discipline. Posters alone won’t do it. Walk the Talk.
Meet and Greet Breakfast: Market your team. Introduce yourself and your team to other supporting business units. Introduce the CSR’s to the sales people, collection agents to the CSRs, or CSR’s to the back office. Instead of agents blaming the others business units for not caring while the departmental divide widens; watch how the two units align in mindset; everyone wants to serve the customer and desires to do a great job. Bring the bagels and OJ.

Take the Next Step!

There are many reasons the contact center culture becomes dysfunctional. Here is a short list: Internal business units fight and bicker over resources, stalling decisions. Management is afraid to make any risky decisions because they have always erred on the conservative side. Now the competition pummels daily and the company is too slow to respond. Do you have managers walking out? Is turnover at an all time high? Too many layers of approvals and cumbersome bureaucracy can stifle progress. If it takes months to get a policy updated or approved that slows progress. Everyone is stuck doing things status quo and thus, customer satisfaction stagnates. What war stories are still being shared? Old stories can set the precedent on how things are done. What new stories can be created and shared? When culture is the barrier to progress, it is time to right the ship.

Getting honest feedback from employees is the first start to righting the ship. Survey employees; employee satisfaction surveys, focus groups, informal conversation, interviews, or anonymous surveys designed specifically for feedback on the current culture and what is a desired culture. Ask the people and you will get a well-rounded view.

Nip the bad culture fast. Bad behavior can spread like wildfire through a contact center. It takes guts to stop behavior that is sabotaging progress. Don’t be afraid to confront the perpetrators. You must address bad behavior, attitudes and beliefs. Have conversations with those employees and set the expectation. If they continue to impede progress show them the door. This goes for managers too. Culture starts at the top. Whatever the manager believes in, what attitudes managers’ display and what they do sets the stage. Team members will mirror those same attitudes and behaviors. Do you have a manager bad mouthing another department? Guess what? His team members are doing the same. If that manager was talking about partnership, those two departments will have a greater level of cooperation and less hostility. Don’t be afraid to show managers the door if they don’t want to change.

Everyone likes a treat! Take the time to reward employees who are living and breathing the culture you desire. The more you reward the more you get the behavior, attitude and beliefs you want to see in your contact center. Use rewards that are appropriate to the accomplishment. A simple high-five can rev up the energy. Handwritten notes become trophies and everyone loves chocolate.

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The North American Customer Service Management Association (NACSMA) assists Service Center professionals with improving the delivery of Customer Care to their clients by providing a collaborative networking approach to operational issues.