Is Your Customer Support Organization Corrupted by Power(lessness)?

In a Harvard Business Review column, Rosabeth Moss Kantor writes about the effect powerlessness can have on an organization. A particularly striking quote is:

“Hemmed in by rules and treated as unimportant, people get even.”

Ms. Kantor could be speaking directly to the management of a large number of customer service and support organizations.

Customer service and support agents interact directly with customers. For all intents and purposes, to the customer the agent is the voice of the company. Why wouldn’t a company spend as much money and time on the voice of the company as  on the advertising and marketing used to create the face of the company?

Hiring the right people in the first place helps a great deal. The right people will be those who can think for themselves, adapt to the situation presented, engage the customer, and help the customer with whatever the issue may be. They will be bright and independent.

But what happens in many customer support organizations? These very bright and independent agents are forced to work from scripts they had no hand in developing. They are not given the authority to do anything without permission from someone else. The information they receive is limited in various and insidious ways. Add to that the unfortunate problem of customer service and support often becoming the first organization to feel the broad sword strokes of “cost-saving” lay-offs.

In short, the company policies and practices prohibit and inhibit their effectiveness. They are not allowed to use the talents that got them hired in the first place.

What is the result?

Agents who do not dare or care to take risks, an essential behavior for effective work. They become disenfranchised and begin to resort to the type of behavior lampooned in stories about civil service workers. They begin to undermine the service organization in retaliation for the treatment they receive.

Companies with heavy “blame cultures” often suffer from this type of problem. Within these companies can be managers who hoard information, make and enforce unpopular decisions without input, and take their frustrations out on lower level employees… in this case, the customer service and support agents.

Some signs that customer support is feeling powerless are:

  • Defensive Pessimism: The reflexive negativity that greets any promise of change for the better.
    • “That’ll never happen”
  • Learned Helplessness: The inability to react appropriately to new or even routine situations.
    • “I can’t do anything about that”
  • Passive Agression: The propensity to refuse to act until damage has already been done while denying responsibility.
    • “Let me put you on hold” and wait until the customer hangs up in disgust. “I can’t help what the customer did. I said I would be back in awhile.”

This can be fixed, but once the problem is this deep it will be incredibly difficult and time-consuming to turn things around. “A tough row to hoe,” as my Dad used to say.

What can be done, and what should have been the practice in first place, is:

  1. Management must trust the agents they hire and give them as much control as possible over how they perform their work.
  2. Management must find opportunities for agents to develop initiatives and manage projects that are in line with business needs.
  3. Management must give recognition where and when it is due.

Allow the voice of the company to shine as brightly as the face of the company. Don’t let absolute powerlessness corrupt absolutely.



Kantor, R. M. (2010). Powerlessness Corrupts. [Kantor]. Harvard Business Review, July-August 2010, 36.

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