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Blog: Psychological responsibility and resilience: supporting collections staff in dealing with challenging cases
Shakya Kumara is a Leadership Trainer and Executive Coach, specialising in Psychological Fitness –the ability to be at your best even in the most challenging situations.
There is now an abundance of research showing that financial difficulties are often associated with mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, depression. So debt collection agents are constantly dealing with customers suffering from these conditions, which of course makes the job all the more stressful for them.
There is also a long-standing body of evidence of the negative impact stress at work can have on both individuals and the organisations they work for. For 2016, the HSE reported that 45% of sickness absence is related to stress, with individuals taking an average of 23.9 days off per case. Such prolonged absence has a knock-on effect on the whole team - so both performance and customer service deteriorate.
Ultimately, stress can lead to burnout. Having burnt out, either because of financial difficulty or stress at work, people never recover fully. (I have first-hand experience of this, and while I have done a good job of turning things around, I’ll never be quite the same again.)
Debt collection – finding a win-win solution
Working in debt collection, particularly as a frontline operative, must be incredibly stressful. And when customers are stressed and the staff that are dealing with them are stressed, it can be a recipe for disaster.
The purpose of debt collection is, of course, to find a mutually beneficial win-win solution for the customer and the client. They need to work together to identify why there is an outstanding balance, working out whether it can be affordably repaid, agreeing the mechanism and creating a commitment to make it happen. But finding such a win-win solution is almost impossible if the two people at either side of the transaction are not in the right ‘headspace’.
The impact of stress on the collection process: the “crocodile brain”
To understand how this works, we need to look at neuroscience. Within each human brain there’s a “crocodile brain” (technically known as the Amaygdalae). It’s a gift from evolution, which helped keep our ancestors safe when they were threatened by the likes of sabre-toothed tigers and marauding tribes of club-wielding cavemen. When it senses a threat, it rapidly leaps in and takes over, preparing us for “fight or flight.”
And of course, when a customer gets a call from a debt-collector, they are likely to perceive it as a threat! So their crocodile brains come to the fore, putting them in fight or flight. And if it’s fight, that means fighting the collection agent – so the agent feels threatened and their crocodile brain gets activated too. The result is two crocodiles having a fight – not pretty!
But of course the collection agent can’t let that play out – if they really do start fighting with the customer (or hanging up the phone and running away) then they’re going to lose their job. That adds another layer of threat to the situation, and means they’re also in an inner conflict with themselves. So their human brain is fighting with two crocodiles – their own crocodile and that of the customer.
In the context of all this, you can see how it’s nearly impossible for collections staff to forge a decent relationship with the customer, even with the best training and will in the world. But that relationship is what it takes to forge the win-win solution that’s going to bring in the debt.
So – stress radically interferes with the debt collection process, as well as threatening the well-being of the collection agent. The cost to the organisation of staff being stressed and unable to cope with a collections role can be huge, from a commercial, regulatory, and ethical perspective.
What’s needed is “Psychological Responsibility” – people taking responsibility for psychological wellbeing and performance, both of themselves and each other. Psychological Responsibility is an advanced form of Resilience training, in that it doesn’t just address the personal level, it also addresses the team, management and organisational levels.
At my UKCCC session, I explained how Psychological Responsibility boosts resilience at all four levels:
- Personal (what most resilience training focuses on – how can you personally be more resilient)
- Team (think people climbing a mountain with ropes attached to each other. If one person falls, the others will able to help. If the people around you are trying to help, you can recover. On the other hand, if it’s like The Apprentice and everyone is out to get each other, it’s much harder to climb back out of the crevasse)
- Management (the manager plays a crucial role in Psychological Responsibility and resilience. Suppose someone has a good relationship with their manager. They will be confident of their managers help and support, and so much better able to manage their own and their customer’s ‘crocodiles’. But if they have a bad relationship with their manager, that’s another source of threat, another crocodile in the fray!)
- Organisational (all work happens in a context –there’s a working environment, a set of policies and procedures, a culture, and so on. Each of these factors has an effect, positive or negative, on the ability of individuals to take Psychological Responsibility)
Personal Psychological Responsibility
There are many ways to manage one’s own mind. Sometimes a simple breathing exercise is enough to calm the crocodile and shift into fully human mode, perhaps even during a difficult call. So I’ll be demonstrating this with delegates at the conference – a simple exercise to (a) see if the crocodile is active and (b) to enourage it to calm down. (If you can’t wait for the conference, feel free to check out my free course by email, 5 Ways to Reduce Stress in less than a Minute .)
If such a simple technique isn’t sufficient, something more powerful may be required. For example, the Brief Mindfulness “Reconnect” technique helps reduce stress and regain focus on what matters most, still within 30 seconds, and without closing eyes or changing posture.
Psychological Responsibility as a Manager
One of the most effective ways for a manager to support their staff is to take Psychological Responsibility for their own states of mind. When managers cause stress in staff, it’s often because of the stress they’re (quite understandably) carrying themselves. So the personal Psychological Responsibility techniques are very important for managers too.
But there’s much more they can do to support their staff in dealing with high levels of challenge. In the course of any management conversation, they can either dent their staff members’ confidence, or build it up.
So I’ll be leading conference delegates through an exercise that helps a colleague develop confidence - in just two minutes. I’ll ask people to choose a skill they’d like to improve – nothing too “heavy”, perhaps baking a better bake-off cake, improving the golf swing, developing a DIY skill, or something like that. Then I’ll ask them to pair up and ask each other a given set of questions, carefully designed to encourage the sort of thinking that promotes self-confidence. This will give participants a key skill in building up team-members confidence and resilience.
The Psychologically Responsible Organisation
At an organisational level, resilience is about looking at the bigger picture, the context in which all work and interactions happen. This can work on many levels, from frontline staff understanding their role within the organisation to senior people being able to change bigger systems and processes that will have a widespread impact on the whole organisation.
I will give delegates an exercise to take away with them which will help them reflect on the ways in which the organisation helps or hinders its staff in looking after their wellbeing and performance.
I look forward to helping delegates with strategies for improving outcomes in their organisations by understanding and addressing staff’s state of mind.
You can access Shakya’s free email course 5 Ways to Reduce Stress in Less than a Minute at http://www.briefmindfulness.com/5-ways/.