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Is Humility a Liability In Sales?

Is attitude really what it’s all about?

Working with sales managers on recruiting and selection processes sometimes frustrates me. We build competency-based selection processes, complete with behavioral interviewing questions and training and role play exercises to gauge candidates’ selling styles… And then these proven systems, artfully used in the interviews, get cast aside. At the moment of truth, when making the decision on who to hire, a sales manager caves to his or her “gut feeling.” When I ask questions to dissect what leads to that feeling, it invariably ties back to the attitude or style a candidate projected during the interviews.

Some sales managers expect a candidate to project an air confidence in everything they say and do, as evidenced by their swagger and conceit. Recently, one manager told me that he wouldn’t hire anyone who wasn’t “downright cocky” because a high opinion on one’s self causes others to view the cocky seller with respect and confidence.

Some sales managers are attracted to an attitude of superiority, and they work hard to bring in candidates who project a slight disdain for the role they’ve been offered. They don’t want to hire anyone who seems “desperate” and they go for the opposite extreme, sweetening the offer to entice a candidate who projects that he or she is “too good” for the role or for the company.

Some sales managers aggressively pursue the competition’s top sellers. They compete by offering better comp packages, more perks, and a refreshing burst of adoration and praise that the seller isn’t hearing in his current job where he or she has begun to feel taken for granted. By boosting their esteem and telling the seller how badly they are needed, these sales managers set up the newcomer for a less-than-warm reception from existing team members.

In these examples and in others that are less pronounced, I’ve seen dozens of candidates passed over on attitude alone. I’m talking about people who sell circles around others in interview role plays, have great track records, exude professionalism, and match competencies outlined for the job… Passed over because they don’t “seem confident” or have “it.”

I understand why and how this happens. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve trusted my gut over all the other information in making hiring decisions. I’ll also confess that I’ve regretted those decisions more than any others I’ve made. It’s not easy to terminate an employee that you really liked right from the start. You may be inclined to think that I just don’t have good instincts, and you may be right. But can you honestly say that your instincts are the very best measure of a candidate’s ability? If you’ve always relied on instinct alone, then you don’t really know.

This attitude of extreme self-assuredness shows up elsewhere, too. It comes across in training sessions as indifference to learning or as a direct challenge. I’ve been told by sales reps entering training sessions that there is nothing new I can teach them, that they could teach any class on selling. (I respond by inviting them to join in on teaching and to go first in role plays.) It comes across in sales calls, often as a lack of listening to others’ ideas and/or to the customer’s needs. It comes across in team meetings as impatience, impertinence or insolence – people with this attitude of superiority seem compelled to make sure everyone knows how put upon they are to be in these meetings. This attitude comes across in interactions with other team members, too, especially those who are not in the sales department. In these scenarios, it shows up as entitlement and others perceive it as elitist and demanding.

When I talk to sales managers about team members who display these attitudes and behaviors, they defend them more often than not. When I ask about humility, I usually get surprised reactions because most people in selling seem to think of humility as a weakness.

Humility is a summary term, generally used to describe a state of being modest and respectful. It is most often used in describing how someone positions themselves relative to others (in position, rank, self-estimation of importance, etc.).  The word “humility” originates from the Latin word humilis meaning "grounded," "from the earth," or "low." In Old English, the meaning was “insignificance.” To understand this word even better, it helps to know that its antonyms are pride and arrogance.

I’ll add to this definition by describing the behaviors that I associate with humility. First and foremost, I think humility is expressed by a willingness to learn and openness to others’ ideas and input. This doesn’t have to look weak or meek. Rather, I see it as curious and interested. I find it refreshing to interact with people who aren’t afraid to ask questions instead of posturing as if they have all the answers.

Sellers miss so much when they don’t have this kind of humility. If they aren’t open to learning, can’t put others’ needs and interests in the foreground, and strut about as if they are more important, then they won’t fully connect with others. Without a connection, how does trust develop?

At the same time, I think sales managers who look for confidence when hiring (and think the more of it the better) are on the right track. Confidence counts. But there’s a quiet confidence, an assuredness, that I think is far more effective in sales, in leadership, and in life. That deeper confidence doesn’t put on airs. It represents a maturity and a strong sense of self that makes it possible to be “grounded” and “low” so that others can be heard, understood, and served.

Dr. Mark Rittenberg of the Berkeley Executive Coaching Institute defined leadership presence as “a state of supreme confidence in which someone is able to reach out and connect with others openly.” I think this applies nicely for sellers, too.

It’s how confidence is expressed that makes it look humble or proud. In evaluating, training and hiring sellers, it’s easy to respond to the surface style. Looking more closely at the substance might reveal that humility isn’t a weakness at all.

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