Over the past several months, we’ve been exploring the impact of cognitive bias on the sales organization, and how to both harness its power and overcome its negative impacts. This week, we’re looking at a cognitive bias that makes you, and your sales teams, cocky… even if you think it doesn’t.
The bias is called the “naive realism fallacy,” and we’re all susceptible to it, usually without knowing that we are. To understand this fallacy and why it’s a problem, we have to dig deep into the way the mind works.
What you see is not reality
Naive realism is the belief that what we ourselves perceive is actual reality. On the surface, this seems like common sense. After all, of course, if you punch me in the face, I will feel it, and you will feel it, and anyone standing around will see it. To us, it seems that your punch is objective reality and that we have each perceived it accurately. This is a common sense understanding of “external reality” that most people accept.
But the real reality is much weirder. Contrary to the common sense idea that we see what is there, the reality is that our brains work very hard to make us think that what we see is real, and that is why we believe it to be so. But we are not, actually, seeing reality. What we see is a representation that our brain creates through a process of collecting information from the external world, processing it through various filters, and presenting it to our “mind” as reality.
In the words of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, “The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”
Now, just because we’re seeing a “representation” of reality, that doesn’t mean the representation isn’t accurate. In fact, as long as everyone agrees about what we’re seeing, we can reasonably say that what we are seeing is accurate.
Unfortunately, that’s not always, or even usually, what happens. In fact, in the example of someone punching someone else, witness testimonies as to what “really” happened can vary wildly. We know, for instance, that people’s memories are often extremely unreliable. And then there’s the question of who started it. Did you punch me for no apparent reason, or did I threaten you first?
The more complex the scenario, the harder it is to get to the “truth” of the matter. And that’s where the naive realism fallacy becomes a problem.
What is the naive realism fallacy?
Quite simply, the naive realism fallacy is the belief that our perception of the world is correct and accurate, and that it is the only reasonable way to understand the world. Even when we’re aware that perceptions can vary, we all tend to think that we ourselves see the world clearly, even if we are the only ones who do.
This shows up in arguments where people on both sides think that everyone on the other side must be “stupid” or “ill-informed” or influenced by “fake news.” It also shows up when we try to convince someone by presenting to them the arguments that work on us, assuming that those same arguments will work on them. Anyone who has been on social media lately knows how well that works...
How does the naive realism fallacy affect sales?
Because of its pervasiveness, the naive realism fallacy has major impacts on the sales organization. Its effects range from causing minor tensions because everyone thinks their view is the “right” one, to losing major deals because the sales team fails to understand the buyer’s viewpoint or challenge the buyer’s own naive realism. Let’s take a deeper look at its impacts at the buyer, salesperson, manager, and executive levels.
Naive realism at the buyer level
The impact of naive realism on buyers is greater than it ever has been before. That’s because buyers do more research before contacting a salesperson. That research plants viewpoints and ideas in the buyer’s mind that, thanks to the naive realism fallacy, they usually believe are the only logical conclusions.
This becomes a problem when the buyer is convinced they need a feature or function that is actually not very important or won’t help them the way that they want it to. Marketers take advantage of this bias by touting the necessity of the features that are unique to their products, even when other products may have better or more important features that theirs don’t.
The Challenger Sales approach is one potential answer to this effect. It asks salespeople to challenge the buyer’s naive realism with questions and information that force them to look at the problem in a new way, that is more favorable to the salesperson’s solution.
Naive realism at the salesperson level
Salespeople encounter naive realism in their discussions with buyers, but they themselves are susceptible to the problem, also. It can show up as obvious cockiness, a trait that is common in some sales departments. This can cause tensions among team members, and lead to unnecessary conflict.
But it can also show up in how salespeople interact with buyers. Because the naive realism fallacy tricks us into thinking that our viewpoint is the only “real” viewpoint, salespeople have a tendency to present information to buyers in the way that makes sense to them, the salespeople. This is not always the best way to convince buyers, who also come to the communication with their own unique viewpoint and way of understanding the problem, which may be different from the salesperson’s.
You can counter the negative effects of naive realism at the salesperson level by training salespeople to ask probing questions and to adjust their sales conversations based on information from the buyer.
Naive realism at the manager level
Managers who fall prey to the naive realism fallacy will be less effective in coaching their teams. They will tend to assume that the only reason salespeople aren’t doing the “right” things is that they haven’t yet been given the right information. These managers will “coach” by repeating information, in the expectation that simply making salespeople aware of the “right” thing will cause them to do it.
To combat the negative effects of naive realism at this level, managers must learn to ask probing questions to understand the salesperson’s point of view. A firm understanding of limiting beliefs can also help managers to do a better job of coaching in ways that actually help salespeople.
Naive realism at the executive level
While it’s easy to think that logical fallacies and cognitive bias start to disappear at the higher levels of an organization, that’s unfortunately not true. In fact, this is one bias that may actually be more prevalent in the executive suite.
Why? Because confidence and conviction are characteristics that often drive people to leadership, and because those characteristics often inspire others to follow. Unfortunately, when that confidence and conviction is based on the idea that only the executive’s viewpoint is valid, the negative impacts can range from “less effective leadership” to catastrophic failure.
A leader who thinks that his or her viewpoint is the only valid way of looking at the problem will be less likely to listen to the voices of others. These leaders tend to surround themselves with “yes people” who only tell them what they want to hear. Under the “right” circumstances, this can lead to disaster.
Additionally, because executives who fall prey to this fallacy fail to truly understand other viewpoints, they are less effective at difficult negotiations.
Executives can combat the naive realism fallacy simply by being aware of it, and becoming more open to the viewpoints of others. Beware of the feeling that someone is “stupid” because they don’t see things the way you do–this is a symptom of naive realism, and should always be examined carefully.
Ideally, every organization should have a strategy that addresses the impacts of naive realism. Such a strategy would be closely customer-focused, and include training at all levels in recognizing the symptoms of naive realism, and in countering it through better listening, better questions, and better use of resources to address the real concerns of buyers and coworkers.
Such a strategy should also be supported by technology that can reinforce the right behaviors on a daily basis and promote greater understanding of the customer’s needs and viewpoints.