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    Are sales leaders wrong to focus on changing behaviors?

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    In the sales effectiveness world, we talk a lot about changing behaviors. Are your salespeople engaging in the right behaviors to get the right outcome? Do their behaviors match up with best practices? Are they aligning well with buyers? How can they change their behaviors to get better results?

    But what if this focus on changing behaviors is completely wrong?

    That’s the suggestion of Sharon Drew Morgen on her page The How of Change. She contends that behaviors are generated by synapses in the brain and that synapses cannot be changed.

    Because of this, focusing on changing behaviors rarely gives us the results we need. Even when salespeople know the correct behaviors, they very often don’t engage in them, because their brains are basically running on auto-pilot.

    Here’s what science has to say about synapses and behaviors

    A synapse is a connection between one nerve cell (neuron) and others. They’re how signals get sent from various parts of our bodies to our brain, and also how signals are sent within the brain. The brain alone contains at least 86 billion neurons, and even more individual synapses between them (up to 1,000 trillion, by some estimates.)

    We’re born with synapses, which will be strengthened as we grow, and some of which will atrophy as we grow. Synapses are strengthened when they are used, and they atrophy when they’re not. Those that are strengthened create habits. They can include everything from knowing how to pronounce a particular syllable in one’s native language, to choosing whether to cry or to smile in order to obtain nurture.

    These synapses, once formed in the brain, can grow very strong, especially as we mature.

    Synapses are related to our automatic habits and behaviors. They’re a form of shortcut so that we don’t have to think hard about everything we do, every day. These synapses operate on a “cue, behavior, reward” system.

    For instance, if you make coffee every morning first thing, you probably have a habit that is driven by well-honed synapses. The cue: Wake up. The behavior: Make coffee (and all of the steps associated with that). The reward: Caffeine.

    My current understanding is that:

    Behaviors spring from habits, which spring from synapses that are triggered by cues and filtered through our beliefs.


    Why are behaviors so hard to change?

    Anyone who has tried to force themselves to start going to the gym, stop complaining, or start eating healthier has encountered the difficulty of changing behaviors.

    This is because most behavior is driven by habit, and habits are driven by synapses. To use Morgen’s explanation, we have very little conscious control over how these synapses behave.

    As a result, trying to get salespeople to change their behavior can be an exercise in futility. We cannot, as is usually done, rely on willpower for this task.

    So what are we supposed to do instead?

    Morgen proposes that it is possible to gain conscious control over our synapses and create new ones to create new behaviors. She discusses the concept and its application on her website.

    Other methods of altering synapse wiring may include hypnosis, positive affirmations, and therapy to work on limiting beliefs. But I believe there’s actually a fairly simple approach that all coaches and salespeople can embrace: Come up with a reason.

    What I mean by that is that we won’t change our behaviors as long as the cues and rewards remain the same and maintain the same importance to us, or if our beliefs get in the way. So instead of trying to force a change in behavior, make a change in the meaning and value of the reward.

    A non-sales example would be if you want to eat better. Simply saying, “I’m going to eat better” won’t work. You can’t white-knuckle your way to a complete eating lifestyle change. But what might work is to change the meaning of the outcome. For instance, if you have grandkids you might focus on the fact that you want to be alive and healthy for your grandkids. Eating a healthier diet will allow you to do that. So now, every time you eat, you think about your grandkids and let that drive your behavior. If you do this every time you sit down to eat, eventually you create and strengthen new synapses, and you end up with a strong habitual route that leads to healthy eating all the time–and let the old synapses weaken over time.

    In the sales context, perhaps the behavior you want to change is the habit of jumping to presentation mode. You can talk till you’re blue in the face about how presenting too soon is bad, and scream “you have to itch the resist to pitch,” but some of your salespeople will just go right on doing it anyway. This isn’t a weakness on their part. It’s just that they have very strong synaptic passages that lead from the cue “the prospect is interested” to the behavior “I present information” to the expected reward “The prospect will love it and buy from me.”

    To create a new behavior, you’ll need to create new synapses. One way of doing so might be to change the salesperson’s focus on something important to them, such as their career, or reputation on the sales team. If this is indeed a matter of importance to them, then you can show them how the most successful salespeople are taking several steps in between “interest” and “presentation,” and that even though it might be perceived to slow things down, it speeds things up and leads to superior outcomes. Then encourage them, each time they feel the impulse to jump into presentation mode, to remember how important their reputation is, focus on how taking a few extra steps will increase their standing in the organization. Thus, they will begin strengthening new passages until that, in turn, becomes a habit. Also, use workflows and enablement tools to encourage the new ways of thinking, and the steps needed to achieve better outcomes.

    It is my belief that when you lead with values, beliefs, and motivations, you get better results than by simply focusing on behaviors. Because behaviors are simply outcomes of synapses in the brain firing off based on cues and filtered through beliefs.

    What do you think? What are your experiences with behavior change in your sales organization?

    George Brontén
    Published March 4, 2020
    By George Brontén

    George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills and processes.

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