I’ve yet to meet a sales manager who believes that all of his or her salespeople are the best at what they do.
Most can point to a handful of stars and a lot of pretty good reps (plus maybe a few fixer-uppers who won’t be around long if they don’t improve their game).
But while every manager believes that there’s room for improvement when it comes to the selling skills of most reps, they tend to fall into two camps about the possibility of improvement. Some believe that reps can get better with training and coaching. Others believe that what you see is pretty much what you get, at least once a salesperson gets a few years of experience.
So who’s right?
Both, according to a recent study.
You get what you expect
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck looks at how beliefs shape learning. She’s identified two competing belief systems among learners and teachers alike: a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset.
These belief systems are more than a difference of opinion. They’re so powerful that you can distinguish them just by looking at someone’s brain waves.
Now, it’s easy to see how those beliefs affect learners. Those with a fixed mindset aren’t going to do the hard work required to grow and change. After all, why bother? It won’t make a difference anyway.
But what’s more interesting is what Dweck’s research says about organizations and managers. Their mindset is key to understanding why some organizations get big returns from training while others see little or no benefit. Training can only succeed in organizations where managers think people are capable of growth. And that’s true whether individual salespeople believe in their own capacity for growth or not.
As a result, managers — and organizations — get what they expect.
For example, consider a sales manager who believes that great salespeople are born and not made. That belief will affect many, many organizational decisions – for example, hiring, performance expectations, compensation, retention. A manager with a growth mindset will be willing to invest time, money and effort into making the sales staff better. Those with a fixed mindset will focus on hiring and keeping top performers and letting them do their thing. And instead of trying to turning good salespeople into great ones, fixed-mindset managers will be looking for opportunities to replace good-but-not-greats with a star — as soon as they find and recruit one.
You can see how such an environment will create a culture in which any training – no matter how good – will fail. Salespeople won’t be willing to admit that they need help. They’ll start gaming the system to make themselves look better than their peers — often at the expense of what’s best for the organization. Even if they themselves want to improve their skills, they won’t get any support from their manager or organization. Eventually, they’ll leave — which is fine with the fixed-mindset manager, until he or she discovers that the next superstar is harder to recruit than expected.
The likely result: A demoralized and paranoid sales force. And performance that never improves.
Growth leads to growth
A growth mindset, by contrast, leads to actual growth — more skillful salespeople who bring in more money.
But how can an organization change deeply held attitudes among fixed-mindset managers?
It may not be as hard as you’d think. Building on Dweck’s initial findings, a group of researchers wanted to see if they could flip managers from a “fixed” to a “growth” mindset.
First they gave managers in the study a questionnaire, which revealed that more than half of them had a fixed mindset (if you think about it, a pretty staggering number for people whose responsibilities presumably include talent development). They then divided the fixed-mindset managers into two groups – a “workshop” group and a “control” group.
Both groups attended two 90-minute workshops. Managers in the “workshop” group were provided research that demonstrated the capacity of people to grow and change as a result of hard work. Managers in the control group received information on an unrelated topic.
Six weeks later, both groups were invited to engage in a coaching exercise. The “workshop” managers were more willing to coach than the managers in the control group. Even more important, the workshop managers were better at coaching. They gave more and higher-quality feedback to the people they’d been asked to coach.
All that from two 90-minute workshops. That’s a powerful result.
So what are the implications?
- If you’re a sales manager who doesn’t think reps will improve with training, it’s time to educate yourself. Research by Dweck and many others demonstrates that people can improve with training. But it won’t happen without your support.
- If you’re a manager who does have a growth mindset, your job will be easier if you can help build organizational support for training and talent development. Share these findings with your peers, and with senior management.
- And if you’re in senior management, look in the mirror. If you want your company to grow, it starts with you.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
Heslin, P. A., et al. (2006). Keen to help? Managers’ implicit person theories and their subsequent employee coaching. Personnel Psychology, 59(4), 871-902.
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