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The “Great Resignation” Is a Misnomer

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Having been deeply disrupted by the pandemic and forced to make abrupt and major changes under significant pressure, many people have reevaluated their priorities and are now making changes of their own choosing: Where to work and for whom, where to live, whether to return to the office or continue working remotely, how to accommodate the needs of children and elderly parents, etc. All of these and other questions are being examined, and workers are finding new answers. As a result, people all over the world are saying no to their current work situations. Most are not simply quitting; they are following a dream refined in pandemic adversity. They are aspiring to grow in the ways most important to them. They are aspiring to proactively make the life they want. This inflection point in history presents an unprecedented opportunity for organizations. Leaders who can rapidly pivot to meet employees where they are — searching for meaning, yearning to grow, and wanting to work for personal fulfillment as much as for compensation — can tap into the largest pool of talent on the move in several generations. Organizations can aspire also, to attract valuable new talent, rather than resigning themselves to loss.

There’s a movement afoot. In the last two years, millions of Americans have left their jobs. It’s the outgrowth of the tremendous disruption of the pandemic, an event unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. The mass movement began two years ago under that duress and has gained momentum even as the pandemic itself eases. It’s been called the Great Resignation, but I push back against that descriptor. I am inclined instead to name it the Great Aspiration.

Having been so deeply disrupted by the pandemic and forced to make abrupt and significant changes under pressure, many people reevaluated their priorities and are now making changes of their own choosing: Where to work and for whom, where to live, whether to return to the office or continue working remotely, how to accommodate the needs of children and elderly parents, etc. All of these and other questions are being examined, and we’re finding new answers. Workers are aspiring to proactively make the life they want.

There are some exceptions, of course.

Many individuals, especially women, have been forced from the workplace to care for and educate their children during pandemic shutdowns and have not yet been able to return. Some of them, by choice or necessity, will not return. I predict that this will lead to a blossoming of “cottage industries” in the years to come — new businesses started and grown from home by resourceful and innovative workers who don’t have or don’t seek a path back into the traditional workforce. Most of them will follow new aspirations. Sadly, some will not return at all, having been permanently disrupted.

But the Great Resignation appellation is, I believe, mistaken. Most workers are not simply quitting. They are following a dream refined in pandemic adversity. They are aspiring to grow in the ways most important to them.

While this phenomenon is not something most of us have experienced at quite this scale, it is not an unprecedented event. People have faced unexpected sea change disruption before and have adapted. Consider the massive social upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution. In the last half century, technology has displaced industry as the driver of change in the workplace, in population movement from smaller communities into urban hubs, and in daily life.

The type of change that we’re experiencing on a global level is not new. Consider the story that one of my team members tells about her great grandfather, who was indentured to a blacksmith for seven years from age 13 to 20. He learned traditional skills like shoeing horses and building wagons. As a young married father, he moved his family from the east to the west coast, establishing his own blacksmithing business in Santa Monica, California. Early in the 20th century, in middle age, he was disrupted by the advent of the automobile. Very quickly, the demand for wagons, and shoes for the horses that pulled them, came crashing down. He evolved his skills and reinvented himself as a general contractor which, in the California boom, proved to be far more lucrative than blacksmithing could ever be. The present situation offers a similar opportunity to reimagine our career and life objectives to maximize our growth.

One of my most memorable podcast guests in this vein is Feyzi Fatehi, CEO of Corent Technologies. I share a little of his story in my new book, Smart Growth. Born in Iran, Fatehi left his home as a young adolescent to attend boarding school in Cambridge, England, adjacent to the great university. The next year he was learning and growing at the Hun School, near Princeton University in the United States. While a teenager, he managed the disruption of leaving his home country and living and studying in a different country, not once but twice. Alone!

Fatehi attended college at the University of Texas, Austin, and finished his degree as the first solar engineer graduating from a program he helped create, combining architecture, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. He told me, “As soon as I graduated, there was a change of policy in the federal government and all the tax subsidies went away. My dream of being a solar engineer died that day. I graduated and was instantly disrupted because my market died. So, what do you do, as an immigrant, just trying to pursue happiness, education, enlightenment, and make a living?”

Fatehi is a growth-centric person, and one of the most dedicated disruptors I have met. He didn’t resign when his dream died; he aspired. He returned to school, spending three years learning the basics of another new field — software architecture, earning a master’s degree. He flipped burgers and did custodial work to pay his way. Despite a serious economic downturn when he graduated for the second time, he was offered a job at Hewlett Packard (HP) — during a hiring freeze.

At HP, he worked on a variety of cutting-edge projects with varied talented teams. Every time the work became less challenging, he would collaborate with his managers to get new opportunities. He completed an MBA, attending school part-time so he could continue with the full-time work he loved. But eventually, after 14 years, he felt he’d run out of opportunities to learn. He said, “I always told myself that when you feel too comfortable you have to move…and the learning had declined.”

He chose to leave HP to join a visionary startup working on software as a service. He took a 50% decrease in compensation and left stock options on the table. He was warned that he was committing financial suicide. But the money was less important to him than the growth opportunity. The new company was the first in its sector to achieve a billion dollars in valuation, but they were, Fatehi says, about five to seven years too early. They couldn’t continue to scale.

According to Fatehi’s account, a 2005 article about the cloud changed the game. Corent, the company that he now serves as CEO, arose from the new interest stimulated by that article. Fetahi feels good about the transitions he’s made throughout his career: “It feels great to have the courage to have a bold idea and get behind it and make it pervasive in an industry. There’s never a boring moment, never a boring day. Tough days. Challenging days. Sleepless nights. Phenomenally exciting, inspiring days.” And he’s definitely evaded financial disaster.

Knowing that we want change, however, is not the same as knowing what change we really want. To avoid “buyer’s remorse” as we pursue our aspirations, I recommend time spent exploring these facets:

  • Do you believe your new objective is achievable? Or are there intermediate steps you need to take to believe that you can succeed?
  • Is it easy to test? Is there a simple, short-term way to test your aspiration to see if it’s really the good fit you’re hoping for?
  • Is the new aspiration familiar enough to be achievable while still being novel enough to offer an invigorating challenge?
  • Is it compatible with your identity — how you show up in the world, and how the key people in your life (parents, partners, children, close friends) anticipate that you will show up? If not, it may still be worth pursuing, but expect pushback.
  • Is the reward going to be worth the cost? Leaving currently acceptable employment to pursue a dream entails costs of various kinds, not just financial ones. Spend time calculating whether the reward you anticipate is valuable enough to pay the price.
  • Does it align with your values? Is it in harmony with your why for your life?

The Great Aspiration presents an unprecedented opportunity for organizations, as well as for workers. Yes, there will be some uncomfortable churn. We’ve experienced some on our own team and may have more. But leaders who can rapidly pivot to meet employees where they are — searching for meaning, yearning to grow, and wanting to work for personal fulfillment as much as for compensation — can tap into the largest pool of talent on the move in several generations. Organizations can aspire also, to attract valuable new talent, rather than resigning themselves to loss.

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When Trust Takes Away from Effective Collaboration

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Leaders should be aware of a counterintuitive risk of trust: A strong emphasis on trust can lead to inertia, as employees might prioritize appearing trustworthy over behavior necessary for good, collaborative decision making. For example, in order to maintain a perception of being competent and trustworthy, an individual might withhold information or share inaccurate information when things aren’t going well. The author has spent over a decade making research on collaboration useable for organizations ranging from scaleups becoming unicorns to incumbents embracing transformation. He explains how overemphasizing trust can hinder collaborative decision making and cause inertia — and how leaders can strike the right balance between trust and progress.

Research shows that it takes a long time to build interpersonal trust in organizations. When people from different groups come together to cross-collaborate on important strategic challenges, there will be low trust between the individuals who haven’t worked together before. The same is true when a startup brings in new executives to help scale the business, or when an incumbent organization brings in new individuals with new competences into their decision-making processes and management team.

Heuristics like “collaboration is all about trust” would suggest that the examples above are doomed for failure, and the low success rate of inclusion and cross-collaboration we see in organizations might, at first sight, appear to be the proof. Fortunately, contrary to common belief, trust is not a prerequisite for teamwork and collaboration. Research on teaming and collective intelligence suggests that if we focus on getting a few things right, new constellations of people can collaborate effectively before they’ve had time to build trust.

Successful transformation depends on the organization’s ability to bring people with diverse competencies together to make high-quality decisions. In such situations, shifting attention away from creating trust toward information sharing, perspective taking, and effective turn taking can help organizations make progress on and speed up change and transformation.

Building trust vs. proving trustworthiness

Leaders should be aware of a counterintuitive risk of trust: A strong emphasis on trust can lead to inertia, as employees might prioritize appearing trustworthy over behavior necessary for good, collaborative decision making. For example, in order to maintain a perception of being competent and trustworthy, an individual might withhold information or share inaccurate information when things aren’t going well.

I’ve spent over a decade making research on collaboration useable for organizations ranging from scaleups becoming unicorns to incumbents embracing transformation. Below I will explain how overemphasizing trust can hinder collaborative decision making and cause inertia — and how leaders can strike the right balance between trust and progress.

How trust and distrust interfere with decision making

Two things stand out as critical to collaborative decision making on complex challenges.

First, in a fast-changing environment, you need access to accurate and updated data in order to make good decisions. The data for simple decisions is relatively easy to come by. For example, most organizations I’ve helped can access real-time customer data that they can analyze and base quick, smart decisions on. But most complex strategic challenges — for example, cross collaboration to meet a changing customer demand — require humans to bring in most of the important information.

When industries transform, organizations need new competencies. Most often, those competencies come attached to a person, who may differ from established employees in terms of background, values, demographic characteristics, etc. Thus, being able to include new individuals and their information into teams and decision-making processes is the second requirement for collaborative decision making.

Trust is a vague term and has a vast number of definitions. To understand trust in regard to collective decision making, keep these two definitions in mind:

  1. In the organizational context, trust is most often defined as an interpersonal relationship that forms when a person shows consistent proof of competence, benevolence, and integrity. This kind of trust takes a long time to build and is easily broken.
  2. More broadly, trust describes the intuitive and immediate feeling we get when we interact with another person, especially new individuals. This feeling is based on past experience: If the new person looks, sounds, and acts like people we’ve had a positive experience of, we intuitively feel trust. If the new person is different, we feel distrust. The greater the difference, the more distrust. This kind of trust is closely linked to unconscious bias and has nothing to do with the new person’s competence or the quality of the information they bring to the table.

Problems arise when our intuitive feeling of distrust makes us more doubtful of the information brought by new individuals who haven’t had time to prove their trustworthiness. This puts us at risk of undervaluing important information that’s communicated by someone new and overvaluing other information. Since new individuals often possess crucial information, this can be detrimental to transformation and strategic progress.

Another problem is when feelings of distrust cause established individuals to challenge a new person in ways that they don’t challenge other established collaborators. This can trigger feelings of exclusion and defensive and provocative behavior between the parties, which in turn harms the productive exchange of information that collaborative decision making depends on. Excluding behavior often comes from individuals who believe they’re safeguarding and protecting their organization. Unfortunately, they fail to realize that their behavior is keeping the organization from accessing the information needed for strategic progress, transformation, and long-term survival.

Organizations that overemphasize trust risk triggering this kind of unproductive behavior. Of course, it’s important to know that people in the organization are trustworthy, but management meetings and strategic collaboration efforts are not the right time to perform such evaluations.

How our focus on trust drives inertia and poor decision making

Individuals naturally want to establish themselves as competent and trustworthy in the eyes of their peers and leaders. But it’s much harder for people to work together on high-impact, complex transformation challenges if they’re more concerned with appearing trustworthy than with effective exchange of information and ideas. Here’s what that can look like in practice:

  1. New individuals hold back information, challenging questions, and out-of-the-box ideas in order to establish themselves as competent, benevolent, and trustworthy.
  2. Individuals representing the old norm who are not experts in the area of transformation hold back questions and hide ignorance and knowledge gaps because they’re afraid to appear less competent and trustworthy.
  3. When things don’t go according to plan, individuals hide information or share an inaccurate picture of the situation to avoid looking incompetent or like a failure.
  4. In cross-collaborative settings, individuals withhold information, questions, and ideas because there’s a history of distrust between different departments.
  5. Individuals refrain from openly changing their mind, as they’re afraid of appearing inconsistent and unpredictable.

The more an organization emphasizes the importance of trust, the more the behaviors above amplify.

How to keep trust from getting in the way

To maximize productive behavior and strategic progress when gathering diverse groups to solve important, complex challenges, leaders are wise to communicate that:

  • Trust is important to many aspects of organizational success, but interpersonal trust is not a prerequisite for collaboration. This is important, as the inaccurate notion that “collaboration is all about trust” is deeply rooted.
  • Feelings of trust and distrust are natural when collaborating with new individuals. However, they’re intuitive biases and should be set aside. Consider the advice of Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman: “Delay forming an intuition too quickly. Instead, focus on the separate points, and when you have the full profile, then you can develop an intuition.”
  • It’s vital to get the most accurate data on the table, even when that data is unpleasant to share. Everyone involved is responsible for creating an atmosphere where others can act with both candor and vulnerability when sharing their perspective.
  • Our individual willingness to explore and take each other’s perspectives is key to progress and effective decision making on complex challenges.

When leaders focus on getting the conversations right, groups often improve decisions and progress quite quickly. The experience of shared progress often strengthens trust between collaborators. It might sound counterintuitive, but shifting attention away from trust might be one effective way to quickly build trust in new constellations.

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When Your Efforts to Be Inclusive Misfire

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Sometimes in your efforts to be inclusive and call out injustice, you accidentally cause harm to others. Perhaps you use words that some find offensive, or you neglect to name all of the groups that are suffering the injustice, or you make some other misstep you don’t recognize until someone brings it to your intention. This is to be expected, and what matters is how you respond. The author, an HR leader and DEI expert, offers guidance for how to respond you’ve been called out for making a mistake that hurts others. She suggests that you own it (rather than getting defensive), you create a space for dialogue, learning, and humility, you model courageous conversations, and call in a friend for feedback. Most importantly, don’t let your fear of making another mistake hold you back.

As an HR leader and a DEI expert, I know that words matter — especially in high-stakes moments. I also know how hard it is to always get them right. You won’t always, but how you respond when you harm others is crucial.

George Floyd was murdered two weeks after I started my new job at VICE Media as chief people officer. As I set out to write an introduction email to a global workforce of more than 2,000 people, many of whom were struggling with the compounding effects of a global pandemic, I labored over each and every word.

This email needed to convey so much in just a few paragraphs. It had to share a little about me, set the tone for my leadership philosophy, create a connection in a virtual world, demonstrate my empathy, and most of all, shake up the assumption that this would be a run-of-the-mill company email filled with platitudes. As an HR executive, my mission has always been to help build workplaces that are truly inclusive and ensure that companies display allyship not just with statements, but with the actions behind them.

After writing and rewriting the email (and getting sign off from my CEO and internal communications team), I hit send and sat anxiously awaiting the replies. Would it be well received? Would my message be clear? Would these new colleagues assume I had empathy and good intentions without my voice attached to the words?

Thankfully, the answers were yes, and since then, I’ve written many notes about difficult moments faced across the world. I strive to send company-wide communications after disheartening global incidents because hate that goes unchecked can explode into full-fledged violence or worse, good people looking away. But even DEI experts make mistakes, and there have been times when my efforts to model inclusive allyship haven’t always delivered my intended impact, and I inadvertently hurt and alienated others.

Last year, I sent a company-wide email denouncing anti-Semitism and lslamophobia, which drew attention from a group of Arab and Palestinian employees in our Middle East offices. A few days after receiving my note, they sent me a beautifully written, thoughtful response to offer an additional perspective on the content of my email. Specifically, they expressed disappointment about an article I linked to as a resource. They referred to a few points made in the article that may have unintentionally confused readers about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia during a particular time of crisis in Palestine. In my efforts to be inclusive, I had made some employees feel excluded.

There are two distinct ways to react when this happens. You can get defensive and explain the situation away. (“I didn’t write the email without consulting others!” “You’re missing the larger point and getting stuck in the details!”) Or you can take full ownership of what happened, connect with those offended, and use it as a learning experience to try to do better. I bet you know which is the right answer.

I sent an email back admitting my mistake, which is that I had not thoroughly vetted my chosen resource with a broader subset of employees, including important regional voices, especially theirs. I apologized, took responsibility, and committed to do better next time.

We scheduled a meeting to connect and learn from this experience, and they helped me reflect on what I knew and didn’t know about the complex and nuanced cultural matters in the Middle East. I was struck by their willingness to discuss these issues in a collaborative manner. In the end, it brought us closer and it remains one of the biggest lessons for me personally from last year.

I got called out, but they called me in.

For too many, awkward and uncomfortable experiences like this lead to denial, defensiveness, or, worse, staying silent. Studies have shown that fear of punishment and rejection are a key reason why people remain silent. Afraid of saying the wrong thing, employees, including managers, don’t speak up about racist incidents, gendered microaggressions, or abusive language in the workplace. But that is a huge reason why DEI efforts have remained stalled.

It’s essential to welcome difficult conversations and give people the grace and space to stumble over their words. Saying something and showing care is always better than saying nothing.

And when you do find the courage to speak up and then find yourself making a misstep, like I did, here’s my advice for taking action and turning it into a positive learning experience.

Own it.

Depending on the situation, whether it’s failing to use gender-inclusive language or being criticized for only speaking up when someone white is being impacted, don’t try to immediately fix it or explain it away. Live in the tension. Listen and respond to what you hear, and take responsibility for what you said or did — or didn’t do. Acknowledge your responsibility, apologize, and commit to doing better. Saying sorry doesn’t always eliminate the hurt so you might not be forgiven right away. What matters more is that you show a willingness to open the dialogue and learn from your mistakes.

Create a space for dialogue, learning, and humility.

Demonstrate genuine curiosity in better understanding the nature of your misstep. Ask questions about your word choices, and use this as an opportunity to better understand another culture or point of view. As a manager, you can create a regular dialogue on a variety of DEI topics so you build a climate where there is acceptance and respect for expressing emotions and grace to help one another when they misspeak. Don’t shy away from controversial issues. You might host AMAs or lightning talks giving employees the room to share their own experiences and solutions.

Model courageous conversations.

The more practiced and comfortable you become talking about racism, privilege, and oppression, the more others will take notice and follow suit. You can’t help someone feel safe about proposing new ideas (or improve team building or anything else) if your organizational culture isn’t designed to make sure people know it’s safe and beneficial to share who they truly are and what they’re grappling with. I write a weekly note to my team where I share personal and professional reflections, and regularly share missteps I’ve made. This is an opportunity for me to model that it’s OK to make mistakes.

Call in a friend.

When I struggle to find the resolve to have courageous conversations or build common ground, I reach out to my community of friends and colleagues — some DEI experts and others from a wide variety of fields — for wisdom and guidance. If you’re uncertain about saying or doing the “right” thing, vet your emails or actions with a broad range of voices. You can also try modeling non-leading “what” and “how” questions when speaking with your own teams to get their perspective: “What was your intention when you said that?” “How might the other person interpret your actions?” “Tell me more.”

Persist when you make a mistake.

It’s natural to be overwhelmed by a fear of messing up, saying the wrong thing, or not being able to do enough. The key is to fail fast and recover quickly. When you make missteps — and you will — how you react is more important than what you did. When you persist with kind, authentic, and genuine care, you’ll better be able to move forward together with a shared understanding.

Most importantly, don’t let your fears of making a mistake hold you back. It’s true that sometimes by simply acknowledging one troubling event you can bring into focus the ones you didn’t acknowledge. It’s tempting to stay silent to not offend anyone, but you shouldn’t. Of course, I’m constantly considering what to address and not, and how to bring in as many voices as possible. On some occasions, I send messages after employees reach out expressing concerns. I always consider what is most aligned with our company’s mission, values, and behavioral principles.

The path to creating and sustaining an inclusive culture will never be free of obstacles or mistakes. So own them and persist.

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Growing a Business

Are Lonely Salespeople Costing You Customers?

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Sales has always had lonely moments. However, when the pandemic sent salespeople home to Zoom, the loneliness became palpable. This is becoming a costly problem.

Many of the changes to the sales profession are no longer temporary. Our clients are reporting that a portion of buyers are permanently working from home. Sales organizations are hiring more remote employees and video calls are the expected norm.

In an agenda-driven video sales call, the social elements (handshakes, shared coffee, etc.) that once humanized the sales interaction have been stripped away. Without these emotionally engaging elements, and without a bullpen of colleagues to buoy their spirits, sales jobs are increasingly becoming transactional and lonely roles.

As one seller put it, “Before, I was busy all the time, and some of it was fun. Now, I’m on Zoom just trying to stay awake. I’m realizing I need more social interactions, but at the end of the day, I’m too exhausted to make the effort.”

Left unaddressed, salesperson loneliness can become a costly problem. Recent research conducted by one of us (Dr. Good) reveals that loneliness goes beyond just a hit to morale — it has begun to impact salesperson behavior with customers, leading to an erosion of revenue, margin, and market reputation. Dr. Good’s data was gathered from two studies that surveyed more than 250 B2B and B2C salespeople from a variety of industries, as well as follow-up qualitative interviews, performance data, and observations of more than a dozen sales teams. Findings revealed that salesperson loneliness is causing three problematic behaviors that ultimately create a cycle of poor performance:

1. Social awkwardness

When social skills aren’t routinely practiced, they deteriorate like any other muscle. Sellers in the studies were frequently observed misreading social signals and misjudging the importance of key details in exchanges with customers. While not surprising — all of us are a little awkward these days — sellers play a particularly heavy price for missing social cues. Buyers are less likely to engage, and the trust required for relationship building doesn’t happen.

Further compounding this problem is the fact that sellers may be coming into a sales interaction moments after having been rejected by a previous customer. Without the buffer of peers in close proximately to help them reset, this could increase the potential for a confidence deficit, contributing to even more initial awkwardness on the next call. An awkward start has a chilling effect on customer engagement and can derail or, at the very least stall, what could have been a successful sales process.

2. Loss of focus on customer needs

Sellers who are overeager for social connection don’t listen deeply during the needs assessment phase of the sales process. The data revealed that these lonely sellers were more likely to forget critical customer information.

In a virtual environment, the visual cues that make each customer distinctive and memorable are often absent. When each customer is just another tiny box on your same computer, in the same room, talking about the same things, they bleed together. This lack of distinction makes what happened (and what the customer said) harder to remember. As one seller told us, “I’m on with 20 customers a day, and every call feels the same.”

We also saw evidence that because they don’t have enough meaningful social connections outside their job, sellers can wind up treating the customer as a confidante, someone they share with, rather than someone whose needs should be the organizing element of the conversation. 

Without a clear understanding of customer-specific needs and goals, sellers are unable to create a compelling or differentiated story about their solution. This impaired memory early in the process winds up hobbling them when they try to close.

3. Conspicuous overspending on customers

Nowhere was the direct cost of salesperson loneliness more readily apparent than their expense account. Dr. Good’s studies showed that salesperson loneliness was directly connected to increased spending on customers. It’s not hard to understand why someone who’s lonely would want to buy their clients gifts and meals, or why they might want to reduce the price to maintain a client friendship. These actions usually generate a warm response from customers, and what lonely person doesn’t want to generate a more positive emotional reaction from the people they spend time with?

However warm it might feel in the moment, this “sweethearting” did not improve salesperson performance in either of the two studies Dr. Good conducted. While buyers may have been grateful, and sellers may have gotten the dopamine high of a positive social interaction, this conspicuous overspending did not create additional revenue. It was a cost with no return on investment.

In the current social-starved environment, many sellers are over-indexing on the old adage, “people buy from people they like.” In an effort to be liked, salespeople have forgotten that the true purpose of sales: to improve life for customers.

How Managers Can Help Lonely Salespeople

As humans, we’re hardwired to seek meaningful connection. The challenge for sellers (and their managers) is two-fold: the shift to virtual created a huge interpersonal void for salespeople whose time had previously been filled with human interaction. Second, when salespeople try to mitigate their loneliness, their coping behaviors play out with customers, which has a direct impact on the organization’s financial health and reputation.

The three above behaviors create a dangerous cycle that erodes competitive differentiation, eats away at the margin, and results in costly turnover in the sales role. With the virtual world of selling unlikely to fully revert, it is crucial that leaders proactively mitigate this problem. Here are eight strategies to break this cycle:

Create situations that encourage non-competing.

When every sales meeting feels like Shark Tank, with coworkers pitted against each other, it reinforces the loneliness. Go beyond the usual sales reporting meetings and give your salespeople regular opportunities to be together without an agenda or contest. Something as simple as a weekly 15-minute “Share your favorite TV binge” huddle gives sellers a way to connect with coworkers rather than thrusting their loneliness on unsuspecting customers.

Activate a sense of shared purpose.

Sales loneliness magnifies when sellers feel that they’re nothing more than a lone wolf quota filler. You can help counter this feeling by regularly reinforcing a sense of higher purpose. Make a practice of discussing how your organization’s solutions make a difference to customers, and how each member of the team contributes. This reminds sellers that their jobs have meaning and that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

Design a structure for peer-to-peer support.

Hold regular peer meetings in which sellers brainstorm together to help improve each other’s skills. For example, you can ask people for their favorite questions to ask during discovery or how to open new conversations without awkwardness. Putting sellers in a situation where they’re sharing best practices creates a support structure they can draw upon during times of challenge and change.

Do some brain training.

Listening skills were the most obvious (and potentially detrimental) thing to decline for reps experiencing loneliness. Reverse this trend by running a quick training drill for your sales team where they practice listening and responding to each other describing personal things like weekend plans or how they’ve arranged their workspace. Improving their listening skills in lower-stakes social settings, where there’s not a deal at risk, will help them do the same in front of customers.

Make sure your sales team is crystal clear on your value proposition.

When a rep has confidence in the value proposition they’re offering to customers, they’re less likely to discount or “sweetheart.” Without this solid base, a rep is more likely to feel like they are risking the personal connection by offering a price that may be perceived as too high or overspend on the customer to mitigate negative feelings.

Set spending guidelines and model appropriate gifts.

When spending guidelines are vague, it diverts attention from the true objective of the sale, which is to improve life for customers. Show your sellers exactly what appropriate and effective spending looks like. Perhaps it’s giving customers a helpful book about an issue they’re facing or providing a coffee gift card for them to use in your meeting. Demonstrate to your team that your solution combined with their own expertise is enough; you don’t need elaborate gifts to make connections.

Encourage your salespeople to schedule small breaks between client calls.

Tell your salespeople, “Give yourself five minutes between calls to review the notes, have a glass of water and remind yourself how we improve life for these customers.” This will increase their confidence in their offering and give them a chance to shake off what may have been an unsuccessful past call.  Grounding themselves in the value of their offering helps them start more strategically and curbs the impulse to overshare.

Encourage friendships outside of work.

Your customers don’t need another friend, but your salespeople probably do. But to have friends, you have to be a friend. Truly caring leaders would be wise to encourage salespeople to seek opportunities to pursue friendship outside of work. While friendship may seem like a touchy-feely topic inappropriate for leadership commentary, the research tells us that a salesperson’s lack of friends can be quite costly. Given the high stakes, it’s a problem worth addressing.

Salespeople are no different than the rest of us. When they’re lonely, they become more awkward, they tend to overshare, and they try to connect in using whatever means they have at their disposal. The above strategies can help mitigate salesperson loneliness, and ensure that your team is approaching customers with calm confidence. 

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