It’s a different world today, so is it time to change the dreaded sales meeting?
There’s a reason mainstream news is weighted heavily towards negative stories – it’s what we focus on. Researchers refer to our brain’s tendency to pay more attention to adverse events than positive events as our Negative Bias. We remember bad news stories more than good news stories. Bad news sells TV and newspaper advertising. Good news is for Tok-tok. And there’s plenty of bad news to go around. The mainstream media constantly feeds our negative bias with stories on climate change, racial tension, and global pandemics. In the business world, supply chain issues, semiconductor shortages, trade wars and skilled worker shortages are fuelling our negative bias.
The response to potentially adverse or threatening aspects of our environment is hardwired and for a good reason. It’s a basic survival mechanism that has protected us from a harsh world for millennia. When I worked as a covert police officer and later as a police sergeant, I led teams through many dangerous incidents and I do not doubt that my negative bias has saved my life and the lives of the people who entrusted me with their safety many times over. Our tendency to focus on the threatening and the adverse in our environment is there for a purpose.
But does this heightened bias towards the negative have a place in business?
Although our negative bias can cloud how we see life and business, there are benefits from our negative bias; it helps us identify risks so we can form a plan and respond appropriately. We also learn more from negative events than we do from positive ones. But there is a cost to letting our negative bias go unchecked. Our negative bias has many implications in a social or business environment, including reinforcing a bad first impression, stopping us from getting over a minor setback, causing us to overreact to a discouraging customer meeting, or allowing a colleague’s bad mood to bring us down.
When I have a bad experience, even a minor one of my own making, I can quickly see myself accepting a negative outcome instead of looking for more positive options. My negative bias is highly refined, and I can visualise several adverse outcomes in a fraction of a second. If I’m not careful, I can react to the worst-case scenario before I have a chance to evaluate all the options – it’s my dark superpower!
For most of us, quickly acknowledging and moving past our negative bias so we can be optimistic is a personal choice, but for a leader, being optimistic is a necessity.
In Colin Powell’s book, “It Worked for Me: Life and Leadership,” he talks about how optimism is a force multiplier. If you prepare your team to believe in a common goal and to be optimistic, you are arming them with a significant advantage.
I’m not saying a leader ignores the bad, but the skill to reset your team’s negative bias is a critical success factor.
Storytelling is one way to overcome negative bias. It helps us see options to a negative outcome, allowing us to quickly move on from our negative bias. In storytelling, humour is the force multiplier. The research clearly shows that laughter shifts perspective, allowing us to see our environment from a more realistic, less threatening viewpoint, which helps us avoid feeling overwhelmed and strengthens our ability to shrug off and diffuse conflict. Having a good laugh adds balance to our day, and a laugh shared with colleagues can keep our teams grounded, feeling positive, focused, and alert. Laughter also boosts our immune system, improves our ability to tolerate pain, and lessons the physical damage that stress does to our bodies.
So how does our understanding of negative bias relate to leadership and the dreaded sales meeting?
My view of what a sales or management team meeting should accomplish has evolved over the years, especially in the context of the significant changes to society and business brought about by a global pandemic, political unrest, semiconductor shortages, skilled worker scarcity, and the radicalisation of both spectrums of politics – all of which has had a significant impact on our wellbeing and the health of our businesses and the economy. A review of the sales numbers, individual activity levels and performance, and an in-depth dissection of our losses are powerful business tools. We can learn valuable lessons from these activities, but do they still belong in a sales meeting?
For me, the answer is no; for the most part, they do not. We are already hard-wired to overemphasise the negative – there’s no need to relive a loss in a sales meeting or single out someone who hasn’t made target or hit their KPIs – we all know it’s bad. I can review performance metrics and the financial forecast during one-on-one coaching sessions or as part of an operations meeting. I’d rather use a sales meeting to help the team reset and power through our predisposition towards negative bias.
When business is down, it’s even more critical for your team to look forward to a sales meeting and that they see it as a time to recharge and push their negative bias out of the way.
When times are tough, I find skipping the traditional sales meeting and just going around the table and chatting about the past weekend is much more effective in resetting the team’s energy and focus. Everyone knows when sales are down and they aren’t meeting their targets. Going over a poor outcome won’t improve morale, raise sales, change the forecast, increase margins or promote employee wellbeing and engagement, but it can keep us a prisoner of our negative bias.
A leader’s job to make sure the team hits the bricks (or ZOOM meetings) with a positive outlook. When times are tough and your team is being dragged down by factors they can’t control, focus on their wellbeing and save the sales reviews for another day.