Emotions and Sales Teams
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wilfred Bion was an influential British psychoanalyst in the mid 1900s. His observations about the role of group dynamics are set out in his book, Experiences in Groups.  Bion identified reoccurring emotional states that groups adopt, which he labeled “assumptions.” Although dedicated sales teams are rare in today’s work environment, even temporary, highly matrixed sales teams adopt similar emotions that help or hinder sales success.

According to Bion, people hold certain beliefs based on what he called “common ground.” Whether it is our family, sales teams, or even friends, we adopt certain beliefs that influence our choices—especially during work. If we think that something is going to violate these beliefs, we will fight it in very predictable ways. Just think about groups that you are part of and how they influence your beliefs.

When issues arise

A sales team is at its best when everyone is working on what they are supposed to be doing. But that can’t happen forever. At some point in the sales, an issue arises that everyone is afraid to address.

Together, the team may silently agree to not talk about this issue, including the sales manager. Think about issues that your sales team has been avoiding, and why this might be happening.

Bion identified three basic emotional states that can occur when a group fails to deal with an issue: dependency, fight/flight, and pairing. When a group adopts any one of these states, it interferes with sales success dramatically.

Dependency. In dependency, the group draws its confidence and security from the sales manager, as in “The sales manager will save us.” The sales team members behave passively, push decisions to the sales manager, and act as though the leader has all the answers.

Ambitious leaders may like and encourage this role. It’s fun to be all-knowing—but it’s not realistic. At some point, either resentment from others or an obvious mistake by the sales manager will occur. The group will begin to question their confidence in the sales manager. This lack of confidence leads the group members to conspire to “take down” the leader, and then search for a new leader.

This is a process that is repeated over and over. Think about how many times the first reaction to a troubled sales team is to bring in a new sales manager. Of course, no perfect sales manager exists.

Fight/flight. When sales teams adopt a fight/flight emotional state, the team collaborates to preserve itself at all cost. In fight, the group may be aggressive and hostile toward other people, even customers. As discussed above, teams can also fight with the sales manager. In flight, the group may chit-chat, tell stories, arrive late, or do other things that serve to avoid addressing the task at hand.

Pairing. This emotional state occurs when a sales team under stress takes up sides because they are feeling inadequate. Once the team sees that the sales manager is flawed and may not be able to “save” them, someone else will step up and attempt to take on the role of leader. The other group members will listen eagerly and attentively with a sense of relief and hopeful anticipation, waiting to see which person wins.


The sales manager's response

As a sales manager, it’s pretty normal to take all this personally. It’s hard enough to do sales management without the team battling you as well. I find it comforting that these patterns of dependency, fight-flight, and pairing occur in almost every group situation to some extent. Being able to think about this behavior as fear rather than the actions of jerks and being courageous enough to talk through the unspoken issues is the best approach.

The worst thing a new sales manager can do is pretend he or she has all the answers. The more infallible you pretend to be at the start, the more the team expects you to be. In every team, infallible is not sustainable. Instead, create a team with clear accountabilities and push the problems to the people who should be solving them.

Pat Murray is a consultant and speaker who has studied Bion and works on leveraging these models for stronger leadership and teams. Murray has a three-step process to help a sales manager avoid or recover from these dynamics:

  1. Creating a compelling vision that touches emotions. The sales production and goals are a start on that, but are not sufficient. Consider creating a tagline for the sales organization to rally the troops.

  2. Creating a “burning platform.” People will rarely trade familiar pain (where you are now) for unfamiliar pain (where you want them to be). You do that by “scaring them with facts,” which sends a clear message that “we have to move quickly.” This also keeps the team from dependency. Work back from the future for your teams.

  3. Creating a logical approach for how to get from A to B. This is where you use dashboards and status reports so that everyone knows who is accountable and for what.


This post is based on content explored in the new ASTD Press release, The Art of Modern Sales Management, which covers everything you need to know to be a top sales manager! 

Sales management has changed dramatically in the past decade. With increasing globalization and many companies adding more virtual workers, the task of managing these diverse sales teams has become increasingly complicated. In a connected and evolving world it is hard to offer a definitive guide, but this book strives to sketch out a blueprint for managing performance in a changing sales landscape. 

Each chapter is written by a sales professional and thought leader, many with experience as both a salesperson and as a sales manager. Learn from their experience and utilize the action plans at the end of each chapter to grow into a better leader for your team, whether they are down the hall or across the world.

About the Author
Lou Russell is president and CEO of Russell Martin & Associates. She is the author of the ATD Press books Project Management for Trainers, Leadership Training and 10 Steps to Successful Project Management, among other titles. In addition to her many books, she contributes frequently to Computer World, Cutter Executive Reports, and Network World, among others, and publishes Learning Flash, an electronic newsletter.

Lou speaks at several national and international conferences, such as the Project Management Institute, Project World, and LotuSphere. She holds a bachelor's degree in computer science from Purdue University, where she taught database and programming classes, and a master's degree in instructional technology from Indiana University.
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