Want your employees to go above and beyond to serve your customers?

Look beyond sheer permission space and build the right culture

William Fleming, President, Healthcare Services at Humana, recently posted this blog on LinkedIn:

We all have an idea of what our specific roles are at work and how we should perform our jobs. We also know there are times when we see opportunities to do more – or better. Maybe it involves going out of the way for our customer, doing something atypical or beyond the scope of our routine duties. Perhaps it involves more time, expense, or engaging others outside of our primary work teams. It might even mean we make a decision outside of our normal purview. So, when these circumstances present themselves, do we forge ahead? Or, do we fear repercussions? Can we summon the right resources? Or do we stop short because it seems to be too much trouble, too complicated, or too risky to go the distance?

Ultimately, the answer lies in the type of culture we’ve established in our workplace, and it goes far beyond simple permission to act with autonomy. It’s a multi-layered approach that comes with time, continuous leadership support, and an organization’s transparent commitment to always do the right thing, even if there are short-term costs to get to the greater goal. Once you “get there,” though, your employees have what I like to call the “freedom to serve,” perhaps the pinnacle of a healthy service organization. To me, it means your employees, regardless of role, feel unfettered by red tape, doubt or fear and, instead, are empowered to take the reins and do well by doing good – serving their customers the way they are naturally impassioned to do. Here are some ingredients for making it happen.

Step 1: Encourage authenticity

At Humana, we’ve made great strides in the right direction, culturally speaking. Part of our journey has included the foundational idea of “bringing your whole self to work” – being comfortable in your own skin, as much in the workplace as in your personal life. It goes beyond simply knowing that it’s “okay” to come to work with different backgrounds, experiences, and ideas, but being proud of it, believing that your employer and colleagues relish such diversity. It means understanding that your work culture acknowledges the unequivocal value of having a robust and varied team that can relate to its robust and varied customer base. It also means you realize your company values your own health and well-being as a priority and wants you to feel good about who you are and what you do. It’s the first step, I think, in creating this safe environment where your employees can be authentic, feel appreciated, and start to feel free to work in their best capacity.

Step 2: Eliminate fear

This is not an easy task – this work of creating a sustainable safe environment. It’s easy to establish so many rules, processes, and guidelines – especially in a highly regulated industry like health care – that your employees worry about speaking up when they see a problem, have a suggestion, or want to step outside of bounds to do a better job. Keep in mind, we all come from the “real world.” We’ve likely been ostracized or reprimanded for standing out or standing up before – if not in a past job, maybe during our school years. So, there is a reason why we put up our guard and are skeptical of being open, forthcoming, and assertive in the face of potential judgment. That’s why it becomes imperative as leaders in an organization to show our own vulnerability, step outside of our own comfort zone, and repeatedly relay the benefits of innovative thinking and doing. Invest in efforts that show it’s okay to “test, fail, and scale.” Challenge the status quo. Or, as I often say, think like a rookie, asking the sometimes weird or uncomfortable questions. If your organization sees this as your leadership style, your employees will quickly get the message that sometimes real progress comes as the result of taking chances and abandoning fear.

Step 3: Champion the “changers”

If you want a culture of people who bring their authentic selves to work, do not operate in fear, and who feel free to fully serve others – including customers – you really have to acknowledge and support the bold ones who stick out their necks. Let me give you an example:

Recently, one of our Humana Pharmacy Solutions employees was talking to a Medicare member by phone. She found out that this member was not only struggling to pay his pharmacy bill but was also struggling to buy the right food for his diabetic condition. Knowing about Humana’s Bold Goal work (helping people whose health and well-being are jeopardized due to negative “social determinants of health,” such as food insecurity, loneliness and isolation), this employee took it upon herself to connect our member with another Humana team and with community resources, resulting in groceries being delivered to him that same day! The point here is that, had we not established a culture in which this employee felt the freedom to extend herself beyond her routine duties, this member may not have been helped in all the ways needed. She felt comfortable not only thinking outside of the box but finding and connecting to resources in a different part of the organization, while keeping the end goal – helping our member – her North Star.

The other key thing to note is that, after this story made the rounds, the Humana Pharmacy Solutions team decided to update their own workflows to better support our members in the future. Thus, if one of their telephonic service employees suspects a member may have needs beyond the original nature of their phone call, they now have a built-in green light to take more time on the call to connect them to the right resources.

Did the story die after this particular customer was helped and some process changes occurred? Not at all! Our CEO, Bruce Broussard, regularly shares this story. It’s been shared at leader meetings and on our Intranet. We also just did a podcast about it, while promoting it via our internal social network. Four months later, we are still championing the people and the proactivity, clearly expressing to others that this is part of our company values.

Set up the steps but, then, step out

Ultimately, you’ve hired a great workforce to do a variety of jobs, and you hired them because you trust that they have the skills and experience you need to provide high-quality service to your customers, growing your business along the way. Hopefully, you’ve also hired them because you trust their judgment and want them to be able to execute the best way they see fit. So while we have a responsibility to provide structure, steps, and guardrails to keep everyone focused and on track, we also have a responsibility to “get out of the way” and let our teams make real headway. Those who are on the front lines of care, especially in our industry, often know the customer the best. They listen day in and day out; they care for them day in and day out; they also have the quickest and easiest route to make a real difference in their lives – if we let them. So let’s let them!

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