I was talking to a client the other day as we planned a workshop for his sales team. At one point he said, “If I could just get all of my sales people to act like my nine-year old daughter, our sales would go through the roof. When she wants something, she pursues me relentlessly until I finally give in. No matter how hard I try to deny her request or distract her, her train of thought remains focused only on what she wants.”
I agreed. As the stepdad of a daughter who is eight (going on thirty), I am very familiar with hitting the point where debating an issue with her will have as much success as suggesting to congress that they limit their pay raises. As my client rounded up the conversation he queried, “I wonder when the skill for relentless pursuit of a goal starts to diminish in children?”
I reminded him that it is much more difficult to brush off your daughter with the same techniques you use on sales-people; asking them to put all the information in an e-mail so we can “review it later” (which means, dragging it to the E-Mails I Will Never Read folder). You also can’t tell your child that she has to lower her bid or you’ll switch to a different, more price-competitive daughter service. I once jokingly told my step-daughter that I was going to trade her in for a nicer little girl, she pondered her response for a moment and rebutted by punching me in the arm. That pretty much settled that debate.
I hypothesized with my client for a while about when in human development the desire for personal satisfaction is replaced by the desire for acceptance by others. At some point the need to please those around us becomes so strong that we give up satisfying some of our own desires. When that happens, hearing “No thanks” ceases to be the end of the world (yes, I know a daughter’s teen years loom before me) and becomes a simple annoyance, one of life’s inevitable challenges. For some, it is a delightful part of the game, for others, a crushing blow. If you’re like me, you have also dealt with your share of sales people who have remained the nine-year old who will not give up until you “sign on the line which is dotted” (from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross). In some meetings, I know in my mind that the person on the other side of the table is in his forties, but when he speaks I hear a toddler’s voice saying, “I want it! I want it! I want it!” Half the time, when I raise an objection I expect him to cover his ears and yell, “La la la. I can’t hear you!”
Many companies, of course, encourage this type of behavior among sales staff and managers. They use terms like, “Take no prisoners,” and “No holds barred;” thinking that military and sports analogies will put people in the proper frame of mind to conduct business. They forget that the military is designed to defeat an enemy and occupy territory. With notable exceptions, the military isn’t that good at developing relationships which lead to sales of goods and services.
The world of sports is an even worse analogy for business. Sure, at its core a sports team espouses the principle of everyone doing their part for the overall good of the group, but when was the last innovative idea developed in sports? Sports aren’t meant for innovation, they are largely meant to keep things the same. Could you imagine Vince Lombardi giving a half-time pep talk to the Green Bay Packers and saying, “Okay guys, we need to figure out how to cross-communicate better and stop being so silo’ed in our positions. For Pete’s sake, if the quarterback can’t complete the pass, one of you linebackers has to step in for him, pick up that ball, and shoot a Hail Mary. Now, in order to come back in the second half and win this thing, we need some out-of-the-box thinking. I say we scrap the whole position designation and throw the ball to who-ever looks comfortable with it at the time. That’s just my idea, who’s got something to share?”
The one thing that all three entities share—the nine-year old, the military, and sports—is the lack of compromise. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We certainly wouldn’t want the military to say, “Okay, we’ll compromise. We’ll let you invade half of Europe if you agree to stop at Spain.” And Wimbledon would be pretty boring if, half-way through the match, both players stopped and said, “Can’t we just agree that we’re both really good tennis players and just go get a cold beverage?” And frankly, part of the joy of having kids around is their unwavering focus on what they want; because it usually drags us adults into doing the things we forgot were fun (even if it means having to take a lot of Ibuprofen later).
Militaristic, childish, or sports-like attitudes damage a company, however, because compromise is the single-most important skill to resolving conflict. When someone is willing to meet you in the middle you trust him or her; and trust is the most powerful (and most tenuous) qualities of human existence. Trust; relationships thrive on it. Teams die without it. It takes forever to foster it, yet only moments to destroy it. Often, when it is lost it can never be regained.
Look at our government; a Democratic Republic in which we vote people into office and ask them to work together to resolve differences and make a better life for all of us. The joke is that we vote for them precisely because of the differences they claim to have from the other candidates. Aren’t we being a bit hypocritical when we vote based on differences, and then decry the lack of compromise within the system? And yet, the most successful leaders (think Abraham Lincoln) were so because they were willing to surround themselves with those with opposing viewpoints; and willing to bend when necessary. A stance where one side stands staring down the other only creates a no-man’s land in the center. You may win the argument, but you lose the relationship; and relationships create sales, word-of-mouth, productive teams, repeat customers, lower turn-over; everything the military, sports, and nine-year olds aren’t built for.
I once heard someone say, “Want to know the definition of compromise in America? Forcing the other person to change.” Real compromise is when both parties are so flexible and creative in solving the problem that the other person thinks they got the better end of the deal. It has also been said that true friendship is when each person constantly tries to live up to how much better they think their friend is. Is this is how your customers think of you? Do your team members compromise or simply succumb? Be careful of the atmosphere you foster in your company. Being rigid and uncompromising isn’t the mark of self-assuredness, it is the mark of a child; and it isn’t. limited to one department or team. Don’t be the kind of company where you clamp your hands over your ears while saying, “La la la. I can’t hear you!”
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.