What Managers and HR Leaders Can Learn From Sales Superstars

Illustration by Dreamstime.

If you’re a manager or a senior level executive, a recent study conducted by Huthwaite Inc. should interest you.

Their research on trust yields formation insights about how you can build stronger labor-management bonds … and therefore boost employee engagement.

Their research revealed that THE most successful salespeople were the ones people experienced as most trustworthy.

While not surprising, it’s when you dig deeper into their findings and ask: “What are the implications for a manager or business owner? That’s when things get interesting.

If you’re a manager or business leader, this means you

Even if you don’t officially “sell” in your job, you unofficially sell if your job involves influence.

As sales trainers are fond of noting, everybody “sells,” whether it’s a parent selling their kids on working hard in school, a spouse selling her partner on why seeing a ballet performance is a good thing, or a CEO selling her employees on the merits of a new initiative.

So back to the study on successful salespeople and trust. The researchers at Huthwaite Inc. identified three key ingredients of trust:

  1. Candor
  2. Competence
  3. Concern

While the first two are worthy of exploration, we will focus on #3 — Concern — because it resonates with interviews I’ve done regarding employee morale.

Since the economic downturn, I’ve been interviewing senior leaders, HR professionals, and managers about what their company is doing to keep employee morale high, despite these difficult times.

I was struck that — without exception — they all responded in the same way to following question:

“What do you see as THE most important thing you’re doing to help keep employee morale up during these difficult times?”

Open, authentic, clear communication — but with one extra ingredient

Every single person said it was how they had ramped up communication with employees, and more specifically how open their president was in sharing with all employees:

  • The challenges they are facing.
  • The reasons for these challenges.
  • What decisions are being made.
  • How each employee can help make a difference.

They notice … and it matters

When William Arthur, a division of Hallmark, had to got through a layoff, their president, Paul Wainman, made the announcement to the employees.

“It was difficult for him,” commented Dennis Dube, a manager at William Arthur. “He didn’t pretend it wasn’t hard; he was up front. You could see his feelings … you could see how much he didn’t want to do this and how much he really values his employees.”

Because of the caring shown by the president and the rest of the management team — including the respectful way they gave those laid off choices on how to exit the company — the emotional consequences were far different than in most companies.

“I had more comments from my team saying ‘I wouldn’t want to be you guys and do what you’re doing.’ Their hearts really went out to management,” said Dube.

Contrast this response with the bitterness and “Us versus Them” climate that often follows downsizings and other unpleasant news from senior management.

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So what’s the take away message here?

Here are what I see as the key points to reflect on:

1. Avoid the temptation to be so bottom line and goal driven that you forget the emotional/relationship side of work and business. While you might think “Hey, it’s just business” — just like the movie mobster says before whacking someone — it’s never “just business” to the people whose lives are affected.

2. Remember that people are starving for authenticity, for “realness,” in leaders. Being strong and inspiring confidence doesn’t mean pretending not to be affected by something that one SHOULD be affected by. It doesn’t mean “whistling past the graveyard” and pretending to have things under control when it’s obvious to anyone that those things CAN’T or aren’t under control. So allow yourself to just be yourself — a real person — rather than believing you have to act out the role of boss, VP, president, etc.

3. Let your emotions show. I’m not advocating sobbing in front of your workforce when bringing painful news. I AM suggesting that you practice showing a little more of your feelings than you have in the past. The more real you are to your employees, the more relatable you are. The more people can relate to you, the more they trust you — and the more they want to work with you to achieve your goals.

Don’t assume people know how you feel about difficult decisions. I think being a good manager and a good leader is similar to being a good parent; part of your job is to share your inner world, to share your thought process and your feelings. This is part of authenticity and transparency. So in the case of bringing bad news to employees, you might let them know how hard it was to make the decision and the concerns you had about making it, and your concerns about its impact on them.

Think of when you’ve had someone do this with you. Even if you didn’t like the news or the outcome, it helped when you knew what the person was thinking and feeling when they made the decision. And it REALLY helped knowing they thought about the impact on you.

4. Acknowledge their perspective and pain. From conversations with managers over the years, I find many are afraid to acknowledge others’ emotions. They fear doing so will open up a Pandora’s Box of messy emotions and endless conversations.

But, by trying to ignore the person’s emotions, they guarantee they will escalate — whether in the moment or over time.

So, rather than hope their feelings will go away if you don’t acknowledge them, let your employees know you understand their perspective and their pain.

Think about it: When we’re upset, we want to know the other person “gets” what we’re feeling and how we see the situation. Then, and only then, do we care about what they have to say. If you question your ability to deal with the feelings that get expressed, get some coaching.

5. Practice paying attention to opportunities to share your concern and to show that you care. There’s an old saying “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” You can add to that “People don’t care about your goals and wishes — and about helping you achieve them — unless they know you care about them.”

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," and Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker, volume one of the Courageous Conversations at Work series, as well over 100 articles and book chapters.

You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.