Am I the Only One Who Dislikes Internal Competition??!

Competition     Like you, I have worked for sales managers and general managers who get all excited about internal competition — you know, those annual Sales Contests where the top producer wins and everyone else loses. Typically they have names like “Spring Sales Sweepstakes” or “Las Vegas Extravaganza.” I guess these events are designed to get everyone fired up for sales success.

Well…maybe they do. But in my experience, one thing these contests don’t do is build teamwork. I don’t mean to sound contrarian, but I hate sales contests! I’m convinced they do more harm than good.

Now before you label me un-American, since we Americans love a winner and all that, let me add that a contest with multiple winners where everyone has a shot at winning the Big Prize is fine. Nothing wrong with incentives — I’ve spent most of my career in an incentive-focused environment. But incentive and competition are two different things. In an effort to get your sales team fired up, are you inadvertently sowing seeds of mistrust and an unhealthy competitive spirit between people who are supposed to be pulling together? Your poorly thought-out sales contest may end up with unfortunate unintended consequences.

In my experience with salespeople and sales teams I have always placed a high value on healthy teamwork. Having a bunch of hard-charging Lone Ranger types, each looking out for Number One, has NEVER been my preferred route to sales success with the teams I’ve led (which probably explains why I would last maybe thirty seconds working on Wall Street!). Teams support one another. Teams collaborate. Teams aren’t afraid to share ideas and leads. Teams build each member up when things are tough and challenge each member to work more effectively. In short, teamwork is a highly-prized value, so anything that undermines teamwork is probably a bad idea. Including most sales contests.

By the way, depending on your sales environment, well-crafted territories can also build teamwork. I once worked for a national firm in which each of the sales reps had a large, defined territory, resulting in a high level of collaboration. If I traced a lead to a home office in Chicago, I knew I would be passing that lead along to my colleague Mark in the Chicago sales office. I also knew if he found a lead and traced it to the Pacific Northwest, he would pass that lead along to me. We all watched out for each other and worked together for the good of the company. Later, however, after I left that firm, I heard that they had done away with territories, leaving each rep free to pursue leads wherever they were in the country. So guess what? Mark and I would have gone from being collaborators to competitors. Maybe I’m dumb, but that doesn’t sound smart.

So, sales managers, if you want to incentivize your team, go for it! But why not come up with a set of prizes or bonuses or whatever in which everyone can win? Set goals commensurate with each salesperson’s experience level and billing potential. Avoid the Darwinian “I win, you lose” approach that I fear is still too common in many sales environments. I predict your organization will reap the rewards as the spirit of teamwork is enhanced. And if you think I’m being a competition wimp — well, you may be right. Still, why not try it and see if it works? I’ll bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well your team does when they really are working as a team!

The Power of Possibility

2014 SUA GRADUATION    His name is Jesse. That’s him in the back row, left hand side.

Jesse’s life has included a whole host of economic, social and academic challenges. When Jesse was in his former high school, a big, suburban place, he says he was that kid in the back of the classroom, slouched in his seat, never making eye contact, never contributing, and barely passing. He was the one teachers didn’t think would make it, the one sure to drop out and become yet another statistic. But then something dramatic happened: Jesse changed schools. He came to a much, much smaller place called Seattle Urban Academy. There in that more intimate, more individualized, more personalized environment, he began to shine. The bright young man hidden behind that veneer of past academic failure slowly began to show himself. Jesse became the eager, interested, funny, inquisitive person he always had the potential to become. Just a few weeks ago, he wore his cap and gown and received the high school diploma he had wondered whether he would ever receive — and now he has his sights set on a career in web design.

Jesse’s story is a classic failure-to-redemption tale. Each of his classmates could describe a similar personal voyage. What changed? Well…in my view it was a whole host of things — but it boils down to the Power of Possibility. Jesse came to an environment where — for the first time — he was exposed to a world of bright options for his future, and he was equipped with the tools to turn those never-before-experienced dreams into reality.

Please don’t misunderstand:  by “the Power of Possibility,” I’m not suggesting you put a picture of a Ferrari on your refrigerator. Frankly I don’t place much stock in the mystical power of visualization. I would simply submit that, for any of us to achieve anything worthwhile, we first have to (a) know what positive things the future could hold and (b) believe we have a realistic chance of attaining that future. For Jesse, struggling at his former high school, the future looked bleak, holding little if any prospects for a rewarding and successful life. He was mired in the trap of perceived failure. When he came to SUA, for the first time he began to see that he was smart, not dumb, and capable (with hard work) of achieving real academic success. Not only that, but he was also surrounded by teachers and tutors and fellow students who believed in him and who were standing by to help him along the way.

Jesse spoke at his graduation ceremony. He said, “Some people … said we wouldn’t make it. We, as a family, stand here to say they are wrong. We turned our failures and struggles into our means of success.”  The crowd responded with tears and cheers.  The road for students like Jesse is seldom smooth, and some of these young men and women have had a lot to overcome. But thanks to the Power of Possibility, combined with the magnetic pull of a clear and compelling vision, academic failure is transformed into forward motion, strong achievement and ultimate success.

For you and me the lesson is clear. We may not face the kind of challenges a young man like Jesse has had to face, but nevertheless we may find ourselves mired in a self-imposed attitude of chronic failure. Maybe you’re the manager of an employee or even a team who feels that way. Maybe it’s a spouse or adult child or a close friend. The Power of Possibility means that a strong, affirming vision can begin to propel us forward. Yes, we may need to swallow our pride and become part of a support group that will help us along the way — this isn’t supposed to be a solo journey. But we can do it. And if I start doubting the Power of Possibility, I’ll think of Jesse.

Henry Ford said, “Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.”  Good point.


Help Me Understand!

Birds     Quick question: how much of the interpersonal conflict you experience in the average day is based entirely (or almost entirely) on misunderstanding? If you answered “about 99%” then join the club.

It seems to me, thinking about a typical day, that I seldom get into real conflict over what I would call issues of substance. Oh, sure, now and then we’ll find ourselves in an honest, substantive argument about “real issues”…but the kind of conflict that drives us nuts, especially between co-workers, friends, even spouses, is the kind that is generated and perpetuated by one misunderstanding after another. He says something she misunderstands, which prompts her to say something he misunderstands, which causes him to react, which causes her to react, which quickly escalates into (a) a full-blown screaming match, or (b) the chilly fog of the silent treatment.

Nowhere is this more evident than in marriage, that closest of interpersonal relationships. My wife and I teach a marriage course, and without going into too much detail, one of the fundamental starting points for couples to understand is that men and women hear things differently. If I say something to my wife that she perceives as somehow unloving, she will react, sometimes with angry words, glaring eyes and confrontational gestures and body language. She’s reacting because I’ve hurt her feelings and she’s trying to connect with me in order to resolve things; but instead of realizing that, I get offended because her response seems controlling and disrespectful to me. I feel like she’s mothering me, scolding me, and trying to control me. That’s not her intention at all! But in the heat of the moment, do I stop and consider the source of her hurt and her anger? Nope — I get defensive and react to her reaction, and the cycle starts to escalate. My (unintentionally) unloving behavior triggers her (unintentionally) disrespectful reaction, which causes me to behave (unintentionally) even more unlovingly, which triggers an even more (unintentionally) disrespectful reaction, and so on in a spiral of angry conflict.

In his classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand — then to be understood.” Nowhere does this apply more urgently than during conflict. In order to break the cycle of misunderstanding, I need to stop reacting and start thinking, “Where is this anger coming from? How much of it is due to my insensitivity? Can I defuse the anger by owning up to my share of the responsibility?” Asking these questions is the first step toward breaking the cycle of misunderstanding.

My opinion based on years in the workplace is that some of these male-female differences apply outside of marriage as well as inside. Men, in my experience the women with whom you interact will tend to value face-to-face communication, and they will often want to talk through arguments in detail and bring things full circle. Women, sometimes the men you work with will go silent on you, not because they are trying to be difficult but because they may be angry and need time to collect their thoughts and cool down. Give them some space! Men may also be the ones to say “Drop it! Forget it!” during conflict, because, for them, the issue is resolved. It’s over — let’s move on! This can be highly frustrating if you’re the one who wants to talk it out, until you realize that he doesn’t need to talk it out. When he says, “Forget it,” he means it!

This is a topic that we could discuss endlessly, of course, but the point is clear: if you’re in the middle of a conflict, will you be the one to break the cycle? Remember the old-fashioned signs at the railroad crossings, the ones that used to say “Stop! Look! Listen!”  That’s a great recipe for defusing conflict. If you can learn to stop reacting, start looking and begin really listening, you can figure out the root cause of the misunderstanding and steer the relationship back onto firm ground.