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Do You Trust Your People Enough To Let Them Think?

by David Brock on October 18th, 2013

It’s odd, we interview people, anxious to hire the best and the brightest.  Those people that have the proven track records, skills and experience to perform at the highest levels.

We assess people on their ability to think on their feet and respond quickly.  In the interview process, we have questions designed to test their ability to think.  We may engage them in scenarios and role plays to see how they handle themselves.  We may leverage formal assessments, testing cognitive and other capabilities.

We find the right candidates–hopefully really smart people, onboard them, then put them in handcuffs (or whatever the functional equivalent is for “mind cuffs.”)

We force them to comply with endless rules, procedures, and processes.  We script things down to the word, rehearsing people on their ability to regurgitate them, word for word, pause for pause.  We monitor compliance for any variation.

If there are variations, we gently remind them about the rules and procedures.  We tell them how much has been invested in tuning our messaging and positioning to be perfect, and encourage them to deliver them perfectly.

Some of this is well intended.  We want to make it “easier” for our people to execute our strategies.   We want to share our experience to help them be more successful, “Here’s the magic formula, just follow it and you will be successful.”

Sometimes it’s not well intended, “You will comply, or you will not work here!”   I actually have a phone call last week with a sales person struggling with that very order.

But then things break down.  We can’t anticipate every situation.  We can’t script every conversation.  Our people are left with the inability to respond because we haven’t given them the flexibility, tools, training, and coaching to respond.

Our people fall into traps themselves.  They are so used to being provided the answers, the procedures, rules, scripts.  But when faced with something that doesn’t fit, they don’t know how to deal with it.

Selling is tough!  Selling is a “thinking person’s” occupation!

The highest performers are those that have the ability to figure things out.  Who don’t need the rules, processes, or scripts to dictate every move or word, but take them as a starting point, but thoughtfully adapt them to the situation and customer–increasing their impact and effectiveness.

Freeing our people to think, to figure things out for themselves, to use their judgment—all within a framework or set of principle and values is critical in driving effectiveness in today’s complex B2B worlds.

But there’s some risk—and I think that’s what holds many organizations back, perhaps unconsciously.  The risk is that people will make mistakes.  They will every once in a while make the wrong judgement, to the wrong thing.  They may try something and fail.

Unless we have a culture, that genuinely accepts mistakes, that learns and grows from them, that recognizes there will be failures; we will never trust and empower our people to think.  As a result, we will never unshackle them and let them perform at the highest levels possible.

So if we are to trust our people enough to let them think, we have to trust them enough to let them make and learn from mistakes.

This drive new and simpler behaviors.  If we equip our people, through hiring the right people, training, and coaching them in problem solving, critical thinking, analysis and related skills, we provide a foundation.  We can then simplify our businesses, we don’t have to be so prescriptive on everything they do, we don’t have to be bound by rules and procedures, because our people are grounded in the basic principles and values of the company, and we are holding them accountable for doing the right thing (yet supporting and coaching them when they make a mistake).

We, as individuals and organizations, become so much more effective, efficient, and impactful, when we are governed by principles, supported by the necessary processes and guidelines.  We perform at much higher levels when we trust our people to think, trust our people to make mistakes,  continually learning and growing from each.

Do you trust your people to think?

Do you trust your people to make mistakes and learn from them?

Do you trust yourself to think?

Do you trust yourself to make mistakes and learn from them?

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17 Comments
  1. This is why I want to get a hold of some of the original NCR sales manuals, from 1892 to 1915.

    We should see an evolution or rather devolution of sales intelligence to sales rote as the manual grew in size.

  2. Dave, i was at the AAISP Executive Retreat this week and a brilliant guy named Curt Vondrasek of Hub International shared a great idea. With his sales team he rewards the person who made the biggest mistake and who stands up and shares it. Two benefits… everyone learns from it and the team realizes it is okay to fail. Love it!

    • Trish, I love the idea. The only problem I would have is that with my innate competitiveness, I would try to “win’ every week 😉

      Hmmmm……. I’ll have to think about that a bit 😉

  3. David- if it were only that simple. Because we live in a low trust environment, our society is driven by compliance, regulation and litigation. Just look at FINRA and the financial services industry. An honest sales person can no longer do his/her job.

    The costs of federal regulations, detailed financial audits, the number of attorneys in the US per capita and the costs of the tort litigation system in the US (about 2% of GDP) are staggering.

    Many corporate leaders are forced to “lead” out of fear. Every decision must be “cleared” through “legal”. How in the heck can sales people be allowed to “do what they want” or work independently?

    We need to return to the time Michael Webster describes above. How do we get back to a “high” trust society? Only then will sales people be allowed to start “thinking” again.

    Barbara Kimmel, Executive Director,
    Trust Across America- Trust Around the World

    • Barbara: Thanks for the comment, I don’t disagree. However, we have to start somewhere. As leaders and managers, we have to take the first step, trusting our people, coaching them when mistakes are made. We can, and many do, use the things you cite as excuses, but it limits us so much.

      I think people are overly concerned with the risk. If we do this smartly and transparently with our people, they will get it. Risks, in my experience will be minimized, the potential for results is tremendous.

  4. Doug Schmidt permalink

    Dave again you are the “adult in the sandbox” who alerts us to the issues that many companies face today. You have highlighted a key leadership challenge – we hired the best and brightest now what. How can we support these talented individuals to assist in our companies and their own growth. Dr. Art Markman would ask the question of how can we develop “Smart Thinking Cultures”? Keep up the excellent insights!

  5. Critical-thinking a fundamental skill to have. #failfast is the culture to have. That’s why we do what we do. Thanks for writing about it David.
    Rini Das
    http://www.pakragames.com

  6. Yvonne permalink

    Totally agree.

    It’s just like educate our own child, doesn’t it? We advise them when we know something bad may happen. However, we’ll have to realize that sometime they’ll just never be convinced, until their behavior really result in some bad consequence.

    On the other hand, if we trust our child is smarter than us, why couldn’t we trust they’ll do a smarter decision than us under all information,or advice, provided?

    Maybe all we have to do is letting them take responsibility for their own decision and let go!

  7. David,

    I enjoyed reading and agree with your blog post. And it really does make you think about putting mind cuffs on your team. I recently managed a Student Loan national sales team for a big bank. Over the years, we hired the best and brightest – then we made them conform to a highly regulated and scrutinized business. It was tough!

    However, we were able to achieve great success. I encouraged and supported the team members to use their thoughts and energy to do something outside of their normal job duties. I even made it part of their incentive plans. And, as Curt does (mentioned above), we celebrate those activities among the entire team and company.

    For example: many of these sales people are passionate about all children getting a college education. However, most people don’t need or qualify for a private student loan – what this team sells! I encouraged the team members to leverage their passion – whatever that meant. In the end, they did some great work with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and diverse segments that have many potential first generation college students. These students don’t have a need for a private student loan, but it helps that sales person to succeed in their passion and pays dividends for the company. There are many other examples – many of them are things that help communities.

    So the key is making it a part of their incentive plan – they are a sales team, after all, – and letting them use their skills somewhere. Even if the core of their job doesn’t let them flex that muscle.

    • Patrick, you are touching on a very critical issue—and a source of lost opportunity for all organizations. We need to harness the creativity or our people in looking at how we continuously improve and innovate–with the customer, within their teams, and with our organization. We hire the best and brightest, but we lose a great opportunity to harness their ideas for continued improvement. Thanks for the great contribution.

  8. Carolyn McFee permalink

    Hi David,
    I have noticed this tremendously of late. I have also been the frustrated customer on the other end of a transaction where the sales person simply could not provide the service I required due to a lack of creativity and empowerment.
    I cannot recall how many times over the past five or so years that I have heard the phrase from colleagues ” I don’t want to get into trouble” . I remember the first time I heard it, I laughed and replied ” you are not in kindergarten,”….then I began to realise that people will respond the way they are treated. Treat them like children, over protect them, pander to them, dictate to them and guess what ….they will behave like children. I believe that open communication and honesty go a long way in allowing people to grow and learn to think and act accordingly. From past experience, I know that if I am feeling slightly insecure in my workplace due to a lack of information, then my creative process and ability to ‘think’ is adversely affected. If I don’t know what to expect, or what the company direction is, then how do I know what to think and how to react?

    • Carolyn, thanks so much for the comment. If we work in places where there is shared trust, accountability, and openness we are much more aligned and achieve so much more. Thanks for taking the time to contribute.

  9. David :
    Another great post… really drives it home

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