Sales Professionals at the Business Development, Account Executive and Management Levels all grapple daily with psychological struggles, both internal and external. Externally, there's the battle to win the hearts and minds of sales prospects who greet proposals and calls-to-action with objections, dial tones, and unanswered emails. Internally, there's often a battle for motivation and focus, fueled by pressure and the constant confrontations with failure that come with being a member of the world's second-oldest profession.
Psychologically, the internal and external challenges for a Sales Rep tend to feed off one another. Whether you're an entry-level SDR or Senior Management, the war for Sales success is waged on dual fronts, and if you're not winning on both ends, you're at-risk of full-scale capitulation ala France in 1942. A little-known psychological principle behind game mechanics can lead your sales force to better motivation and employee engagement. It's name: the 'Flow Zone.'
Employee Engagement: The Flow Zone
The Flow Zone is the feeling of ultimate engagement. You've heard of people being "locked in" or "on point" -- this is what they are talking about. Take a look at the chart below.
This chart, as enumerated by Gabe Zichermann in his book Gamification By Design, provides a compelling illustration of how engagement, at its most fundamental level, actually works. In fact, its principles hold equalliy true whether you're playing Call of Duty or going about your daily process as a Sales Professional.
Breaking down the chart, the Y-Axis denotes the "Challenge Level" of a given activity, while the X-Axis denotes the Skill Level required to succeed. Logically, the higher the challenge, the higher the skill level needed to reach what one would define, "successful performance."
The Flow Zone is the mental sweet spot where (external) Challenge Level aligns with (internal) Skill Level. It's the narrow path that fuels productivity, confidence, and growth, and it's surrounded by what I like to call the Wilderness of Disengagement.
The Wilderness of Employee (Dis)Engagement
What is the wilderness of disengagement? For starters, it's the psychological homestead of an incredible 87 percent of the global workforce, according to an October 2013 Gallup poll. And here in North America, where Gallup found only 29 percent of employees to be engaged at work, it's almost equally pervasive.
How did 71 percent of North Americans find their way into the wilderness? Zichermann's chart, and the disalignment of individual skill level with the corresponding challenge level at work, goes a long way towards explaining the answer.
We seem to be in the Dark Ages of Employee Engagement here in 2014. Tempting workplace distractions like Social Media, Fantasy Sports, and Group texting can easily disrupt even the most well-aligned professional's engagement level and get them out of their so-called flow zone.
For managers especially, it is thus important to recognize this key fact: The amount of time your team spends wandering the Wilderness of Disengagement will be a product of two things: Skillset and environment. For example, if you are an extremely talented, but unchallenged Sales Rep (i.e. you find yourself feeling like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting), you likely fall to the right of the Flow Zone and your time at work is characterized by feelings of boredom and frustration.
Alternatively, if the challenges of your profession exceed your skill level (i.e. you feel like a member of a certain District-5 Peewee Hockey Team), you likely fall to the left of the Flow Zone and your performance is beset by feelings of anxiety and inadequacy.
The good news is that every Sales Professional, at some point, has felt each way. Realistically, it's not uncommon to traverse from one side of the spectrum to the other in the very same day. That being said, the longer that you find yourself in these areas, the more likely you are to grow uninspired and disillusioned with your profession at a fundamental level.
Though eliminating workplace disengagement altogether is an impossibility, managers and employees alike still remain accountable for controlling their workplace engagement level. Here's how to leave the wilderness behind and get to the Promised Land.
Creating a Flow Zone to Improve Employee Engagement
Creating a Flow Zone for yourself and your team isn't about getting a new job, per se, or finding new employees to replace those who aren't performing. It's about aligning incentives properly and matching skill level with expectations.
Hiring and training new Sales reps gets expensive and jumping from job-to-job with frequency can hurt your career in the aggregate, so you're likely better off figuring out how to create a Flow Zone in the job you are at and with the team you currently have.
Every sales team is different, so it's critical to ensure that your talent is working in a position that matches skill level. Sales professionals that feel properly challenged will consider themselves capable of reaching set goals, but also pushed to perform at a high level every single day.
Follow these three paths to your team's Flow Zone:
Set Proper Benchmarks: When you are setting benchmarks as a Sales Manager, think of yourself as an educator crafting a test for your students. You want your Sales Reps operating on a Bell Curve, in terms of how well they are meeting benchmarks.
If every one of your students is acing, or conversely, failing the performance benchmarks you are setting for them, you must adjust those benchmarks accordingly.
Understand Your Team Members: Whether you're a Business Development Representative, Account Executive, or Manager, it's your responsibility to understand what motivates and compels your fellow team members.
Remember: You, as a Sales Professional, have embarked on a career predicated around the skill of persuasion. If a manager is failing to motivate your team or if someone you supervise is falling short, figure out what specifically drives that person, then reach out and appeal to him or her based on that particular motivating factor.
When All Else Fails, Create Your Own Game: If your job doesn't seem challenging to you, I have a simple solution: Challenge yourself. Create internalized missions and seek to accomplish them. If nothing else, you're always accountable to yourself, and committing to relentless self-improvement is a great way to stay in the Flow Zone.
If you feel overwhelmed and anxious at your position, number one, take a step back and remember that this is just a ride. Continue fighting to improve, setting your own internal benchmarks, and seeking coaching and advice wherever you can find it. (Trust me, it's out there).
Ambition Creates Target-Driven Sales Culture
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