Sometimes, poor sales performance is due to a lack of skills or knowledge. But sometimes, salespeople know what to do, they know how to do it, and they even know why they should do it… and they still don’t do it, at least not consistently.
This situation drives managers nuts. It seems a much harder problem to solve than a simple lack of knowing.
Often, at the root of this problem may be some limiting belief that must be identified and worked with. I talked about limiting beliefs in this article and you may also want to check out Dave Kurlan’s insights here.
Other times, failure to do what the salesperson knows they should do is something much more universal and straightforward: A lack of discipline or willpower.
Human beings, on the whole, are fundamentally lazy. And we can blame evolution for it. In order to make the best use of resources for survival and thriving, we are hard-wired to seek the fastest path to results and to rest our brains and bodies as much as we feel we can get away with while still getting the outcomes we want.
Of course, some people’s wiring is more this way than others, but the truth is that even the world’s most disciplined people demonstrate a limited capacity for willpower.
If I asked you to name a profession that requires more discipline than any other, “surgeon” or “medical professional” might come to mind.
After all, it takes a lot of discipline to make it through the decades of education, training, and internship required to practice medicine, and to maintain credentials and compliance, all while meeting hospital regulations and taking care of patient needs.
Literal lives depend on the discipline of the surgeon. Sadly, that doesn’t stop surgeons and other medical professionals from falling prey to all-too-human limitations on discipline and willpower.
An 8-year Johns Hopkins patient safety study determined that 250,000 U.S. deaths per year are due to medical error, making it the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. These mistakes are only occasionally something spectacular like a mistaken surgical location–usually they are failures of discipline and willpower such as not draping a patient properly for IV insertion or inadequate pre-surgical hygiene (i.e., hand-washing).
To understand how this happens, we must turn to the field of psychology. But first, a couple of definitions.
According to the Collins Dictionary, “Self-discipline is the ability to control yourself and to make yourself work hard or behave in a particular way without needing anyone else to tell you what to do.”
Willpower is a necessary component of self-discipline. According to the American Psychology Association, “Willpower is the ability to delay gratification, or resist short-term temptations to achieve long-term goals.”
In the sales profession, for instance, willpower is necessary to continue to pick up the phone and make calls after multiple rejections have created the impulse to quit. Willpower is necessary in order to continue to follow the correct sales process even when you’re tired, bored, demoralized – or when your excitement makes you think you should leap forward a few steps to a presentation, even though you know better.
We all have a store of willpower available to us, but it is not unlimited.
Remember the last weekend you spent with difficult relatives (maybe over the holidays?), smiling politely even though they were getting on your very last nerve? As soon as you could get away, you went out and bought yourself that triple layer deluxe quadruple chocolate heart attack sundae, even though you’d promised yourself to lose weight in the New Year, didn’t you?
Researchers into the science of willpower would most likely say that’s because you used up your willpower choosing repeatedly not to give your mother-in-law a piece of your mind.
In one early academic study, Roy Baumeister’s lab brought subjects into a room filled with the aroma of fresh-baked cookies. On a table was a plate of cookies, and a bowl of radishes. Some of the study’s participants were encouraged to indulge in the cookies, while others were encouraged instead to snack on radishes.
Afterward, all subjects were given a test of willpower, involving a difficult geometric puzzle.
Those who had indulged in cookies persisted at the task for an average of almost 19 minutes. Those who had exercised willpower by snacking on radishes gave up after only about 8 minutes.
It seems that the radish-eaters used up their willpower and retained only half the willpower of their cookie-indulging peers.
Research has taught us that making decisions can also use up our store of willpower. You may remember the practical use Steve Jobs famously made of this bit of research: He wore the same turtleneck every day to work so that he wouldn’t have to make decisions about clothing early in the day that might impact his resources for bigger and more important decisions later.
Here’s where things get weird. So far, I’ve talked only about the research indicating that willpower is depletable, a “fact” we all intuitive understand and have experience with.
But, there is a whole other body of research that seems to indicate that willpower is only depletable because we believe it is.
In 2010, a study from Stanford University researcher Veronika Job, PhD, asked participants about their beliefs, then tested their willpower depletion. Those who said that willpower was a limited resource were more likely to have their willpower depleted than those who believed it was unlimited.
In a second part of the study, researchers asked participants to fill out a questionnaire with subtly biased questions that were designed to manipulate their beliefs about willpower. In this portion of the study, those who had been led to believe that willpower is a limited resource performed worse on the subsequent willpower exercise than those who were led to believe willpower is an unlimited resource.
In other words, what we believe about willpower changes our ability to exercise it, and it’s possible to change what we believe and thereby how we behave.
With a clearer understanding of discipline and willpower, we are armed to make some changes in how we manage our sales organizations. First, we can stop judging salespeople for lacking discipline–it’s not their fault, and pointing fingers doesn’t help them change.
Second, we can support them with simple things like checklists and process guidance so they don’t have to expend so much energy staying disciplined for simple, repeatable activities. This is comparable to Steve Jobs wearing the same turtleneck every day–a simple way to unlock more potential on your team.
Third, we can help them address underlying limiting beliefs about willpower and discipline, and help them develop more supportive beliefs in their ability to strengthen and extend their willpower.
My upcoming book, Stop Killing Deals, reveals more about the science of self discipline, unveils more bad assumptions about human nature that undermine our sales effectiveness, and presents a framework for using that knowledge to set your sales organization up for success. Click here to get updates and download the first chapter.
I would love to hear how you support willpower and discipline on your sales team in the comments, or reach out to us to talk about how Membrain can help.
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.