How Fear Flatlines Performance

Fear has a chilling effect on our ability to engage. It ignites the most primal, self-serving part of our brains. When your brain has been hijacked by fear, your personal short-term interests trump everything else.

You’re not able to connect with the person on the other side of the table, even if that person is a customer.

Keeping fear at bay is the single biggest challenge for leaders in the current environment.

For example, let’s look at how it impacts a sales team. As organizations face potentially declining revenues, or uncertainty about the future, the natural inclination is to push harder for sales. Sales teams are told, “Close everything you can!” The fear of failure is real. Organizations fear for their future; salespeople fear for their jobs.

Leaders looking at a bleak pipeline report often spill fear down to their teams, saying things like, “If we don’t hit these numbers, we’re dead.” It’s meant metaphorically, but people feel it as though it were real.

Fear starts in your gut and spreads like ice water through your veins. Your heart beats faster, your breathing becomes shallow, and you break out in a cold sweat.

This is hardly the right mindset for successful sales calls.

Old-school leaders might still believe fear is a great motivator for salespeople. But here’s what we’ve observed after a decade of working with high-performing sales teams: fear of failure can jumpstart sales activity, but it has a chilling effect on sales behavior.

Fear makes you frantic. In a crisis, you want salespeople who are focused.

  • Sales teams driven by fear:
  • Think only of the short-term
  • Are more likely to product pitch
  • Don’t ask insightful questions
  • Think about themselves more than the customer
  • Give unrealistic revenue projections
  • Worry about covering mistakes instead of fixing them
  • Tell their boss what he or she wants to hear
  • Fail to connect in a meaningful way

In a time of uncertainty, a sales team that descends into a transactional “close deals today or else” mindset can quickly erode your brand, and your reputation with clients. And because fear-based sales teams are less likely to be candid about revenue projections, leaders are often caught by surprise when revenue plummets.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The job of leadership is to take fear off the table. You can quell the fear while still maintaining urgency.

This requires a critical shift in the leadership conversation. The organization narrative must move beyond the internal target to external, client impact. Instead of saying: We’re in danger of missing our targets, leaders can say: Our customers need us now more than ever.

The words of the leaders carry outsize importance in a time of uncertainty.

A sales team whose leaders provide absolute clarity about how their offering helps customers and reinforces why customers need them right now has a greater sense of purpose, and thus a big advantage, over a transactional sales team whose leaders focus on internal targets and quotas.

Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s the ability to act in the face of fear. Sales teams who believe their purpose is to help customers are more successful than sales teams who simply try to close customers. That’s because they:

  • Think long-term
  • Listen deeply
  • Tell the boss what he or she needs to hear
  • Manage unknowns
  • Work harder in the face of adversity

To be clear, this type of “noble purpose” approach is not meant to be mere window dressing. Instead it is an authentic declaration about how the organization’s offering improves life for customers.

Consider this council from Jeff Weiner, former LinkedIn CEO: “Imagine a world where a global economic downturn doesn’t limit our ability to execute, but reinforces the essential quality of our purpose and actually strengthens our resolve when people need us most.”

We are in a defining moment. Teams who focus inward, on their own internal targets, will likely remain anxious and afraid. This fear stymies innovation, and has a chilling effect on market reputation and customer engagement.

The other choice is to focus outward, on the impact your organization has on customers. Teams who decide their Noble Purpose is to improve life for customers have a clear North Star that guide them during times of uncertainty and change.

A team who is afraid thinks small. A team fueled by purpose has the courage to transform themselves.