Faculty & Research
Faculty & Research
Customer Service at Altitude: Effects of Empowering Leadership
By Samuel Aryee, Tae-Yeol Kim, Qin Zhou and Seongmin Ryu
The increasingly diverse needs and expectations of customers underscore the importance of discretion (i.e., the freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation) in frontline employees’ service performance and ultimately, customer and organisational outcomes. Perhaps because of its implications for fostering employees’ experience of discretion, much research has examined the role of empowering leadership in enhancing employees’ motivational states and the resulting service performance. However, there is also widespread recognition that individual and organisational factors play a significant role in how individuals respond to leadership behaviours. Moreover, given the growing adoption of a customer-oriented strategy among service organisations, customer orientation can constitute an important individual difference variable that shapes reactions to empowering leadership.
So, how do team-level empowering leadership and customer orientation influence employees’ thriving at work (i.e., employees’ sense of vitality and learning) and, ultimately, their service performance? How does shared organisational social exchange moderate the relationship between empowering leadership and service performance? And, how can empowering leadership motivate individuals with different levels of customer orientation?
Team-level empowering leadership and thriving at work
Empowering leadership describes a leadership perspective that provides guidelines for leaders in terms of distributing and exercising their power. Specifically, it denotes a process whereby leaders delegate decision-making power to employees, express confidence in their capabilities in handling challenging responsibilities, hold them accountable, enhance meaningfulness in work, and provide them with the resources including support to perform their responsibilities. The meaning and positive energy that empowering leadership fosters enable employees to be task-focused as well as engage in self-determined behaviours that engender vitality and learning, subsequently leading to thriving at work.
Customer orientation and thriving at work
For our purposes, we describe customer orientation as a “tendency or predisposition to meet customer needs in an on-the-job context” or “the extent to which service providers are willing to put forth time and effort to satisfy their customers”. High customer orientation employees will put forth time and effort into understanding the needs and expectations of customers. The resulting search or exploratory activities will provide them opportunities to acquire new skills and knowledge as well as feel energised. Notably, despite the investments made by companies in the training of employees to become more customer-oriented, not all employees are highly customer-oriented; thus, an important question for many organisations becomes how to motivate low customer oriented employees to engage in self-determined behaviours that lead to enhanced levels of service performance.
The moderating role of customer orientation
Discretion or empowerment is considered a prerequisite in service performance because employees “need the flexibility to make on the spot decisions to completely satisfy customers”. However, given their predisposition to be focused on the service delivery process and to satisfy customer needs, high customer orientation employees will be motivated to engage in self-determined behaviours such as meaningfully interacting with customers to learn about their needs and possess the emotional resources to satisfy these needs. Additionally, engaging in these self-determined behaviours will contribute to high customer orientation employees’ self-verification as individuals who place a high priority on satisfying customer needs and expectations. Consequently, we would expect that the effects of empowering leadership on contributing to enhanced levels of thriving at work would be marginal for high customer orientation employees.
In contrast, low customer orientation employees do not assume responsibility for learning about the needs and expectations of customers. For this reason, they will only superficially engage with customers and will therefore, not have the knowledge and information to satisfy the needs and expectations of customers. Additionally, they will be less likely to engage in self-determined behaviours as they are more passive, less energised, and perhaps more helpless when it comes to responding to the diverse needs and expectations of customers. Consequently, low customer orientation employees will be much more dependent on resources provided by team-level empowering leadership to engage in self-determined behaviours that lead to thriving at work.
Moderating role of shared organisational social exchange
Although team-level empowering leadership shapes the attitudes and behaviours of team members, team members’ experience of work is shaped both by their experience of the leader’s behaviours as well as those of the organisation (which we conceptualise as shared organisational social exchange). A social exchange relationship describes a long-term, mutually invested relationship characterised by the exchange of both economic and socio-emotional resources. Accordingly, we expect team-level empowering leadership to interact with a team’s shared organisational social exchange to facilitate employees’ receipt of resources such as support, discretion, respect and trust that engender task-focused behaviours. However, in a context of a low quality shared organisational social exchange, high team-level empowering leadership may signal conflicting messages to team members about the extent to which they can obtain resources.
Findings and discussion
As part of our research, we surveyed 283 flight attendants working at a major Korean airline. Using a Likert type scale, participants were asked to rate their level of satisfaction or agreement with a series of statements related to team-level empowering leadership, customer orientation, shared organisational social exchange and thriving at work. Employees’ inflight supervisors were then invited to rate the service performance of each of the members of their cabin crew who had participated in the survey.
Our findings suggested that both team-level empowering leadership and customer orientation are indirectly related to service performance via thriving at work. Furthermore, we found that customer orientation significantly substituted for the effect of team-level empowering leadership on thriving at work such that this relationship was stronger for employees with low (rather than high) customer orientation. However, we also observed that shared organisational social exchange augmented the influence of team-level empowering leadership on service performance, but not its influence on thriving at work.
Given the team-based nature of an airline cabin crews’ delivery of customer service, our findings regarding the effects of team-level empowering leadership provide practical implications that service organisations may leverage to enhance the service performance of individual flight attendants. First, the finding that the effect of empowering leadership on thriving at work is contingent upon employees’ customer orientation reinforces the importance of organisations considering the attributes of employees when implementing leadership practices. While customer orientation should continue to be an important selection criteria in a service context, this study’s findings suggest that team-level empowering leadership is more effective in enhancing the thriving at work of employees who are low rather than high in customer orientation.
Our results also suggest that a shared high quality organisational social exchange can enhance the relationship between team-level empowering leadership and service performance. Consequently, organisations must invest in the development of a high quality of relationship with employees while correspondingly investing in the training of leaders in empowerment practices. Ultimately, human resource practices that foster employees’ perception of a social rather than an economic exchange with their organisation provides a facilitative context in which to harness the performance effects of empowering leadership to enhance the quality of employees’ service performance. Thus, organisations can reinforce the performance implications of empowering leadership by showing care and concern for their employees if their employees are to reciprocate through enhanced service performance.
Samuel Aryee is a Professor of OB and HRM in Surrey Business School, University of Surrey. Tae-Yeol Kim is Philips Chair in Management and the Department Chair in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management Department at CEIBS. For more on his teaching and research interests, please visit his CEIBS faculty profile here. Dr. Qin Zhou is an Associate Professor in management at Durham University, UK. Seongmin Ryu is a Professor in the Department of Business Administration at Kyonggi University, South Korea.