Death (and Life) of a Salesman: The impact of Emotional Intelligence on the sales function

Death (and Life) of a Salesman: The impact of Emotional Intelligence on the sales function

Richard McFarland, Professor of Marketing at ESSEC Business School and winner of the 2016 Stern Award for research introducing the theory of “supply chain contagion”, puts the research spotlight* on emotional intelligence and its impact on reducing stress-related issues in the sales force. 

*From the research paper A contingency model of emotional intelligence in professional selling, Richard McFarland, Joseph C. Rode and Tasadduq A. Shervani.

Death of a Salesman: Using Emotional Intelligence to avoid it – with a “but”

Many of us have seen or read Arthur Miller’s awarding-winning play or watched László Benedek’s classic 1951 film adaptation of Death of a Salesman (and if you haven’t, then please do – you will not be disappointed). Willy Loman, the key character, falls victim to exhaustion from sales travelling, unrealistic expectations, and stress that is generated from both under-achieving his targets and conflict within his family. That was fiction, of course. And it was back in the 50s. But the tough reality of the sales function, moreover the focus of much research, still persists in our day and age. 

Rest assured: for all those working in the sales arena, you don’t have to end up like Willy Loman. In the 1990s, the psychologist Daniel Goleman published a bestselling book – Emotional Intelligence – that was to revolutionize our awareness of emotions throughout the whole spectrum of professional functions, including that of sales. Heralded as a silver bullet solution to understand stress, conflict and relationships, Emotional Intelligence has since been taken up by many organizations as a core part of the corporate training curriculum. However, research into its impact among the sales function has demonstrated lower results than was hoped for. Why is that? Richard McFarland’s new research (together with research fellows Joseph C. Rode and Tasadduq A. Shervani) takes a different angle and demonstrates that EI can indeed have a positive effect – though under certain conditions. 

The sales rep: a unique kind of stress

The sales function provides management researchers with a wealth of gritty issues. This is because of the unique nature of the sales role and its environment. Unlike other jobs, and given the internal and external social and interactional nature of selling, the sales rep’s role spans many boundaries and can often be one of autonomy – working away from the office – and solitude. These can be sources of high levels of stress endemic to the profession. In addition, salespeople must answer to a wide range of results that include customer relationships, current sales, and long term growth, all of which can be affected by role stress and difficult choices between maximizing short-term results and the potential for long-term performance. But it hasn’t yet finished for the poor sales rep – for on top of “role stress” comes “role conflict” – conflicting demands such as meeting the desires of customers with the desires of the salesperson’s own firm – and “role ambiguity” – the confusion that may exists regarding the sales rep’s job responsibilities and how to fulfill them.     

Extensive research has demonstrated the negative effects of role stress on a number of sales outcomes including emotional exhaustion, customer-oriented behaviors, and sales performance, though in general the research (for example, Singh et al, 1996 and Verbeke et al, 2011) has also found that role ambiguity has a larger effect on sales outcomes than does role conflict. 

What is EI and what is its worth?

Defined as the ability to recognize and manage emotional cues and information (Mayer and Salovey 1997), Emotional Intelligence is used by a significant number of Fortune 500 companies in their training and management programs and many are the training companies and consultants that have sprung up to provide it for them. Returning to Goleman’s bestselling Emotional Intelligence, one of his founding arguments was that EI had a much greater impact on career success than the traditional selection criterion of IQ. This includes possessing the abilities to perceive (self-awareness and awareness of others, understand (expressing empathy, for example), and manage emotions (one’s own and those of others such as can be found in customer relationships). These “pillars” – to coin the habitually used term – involve recognizing facial expressions, body posture, and other non-verbal cues, which research has shown to positively influence adaptive selling and negotiations between buyers and sellers. Other positive outcomes of understanding emotions relate to the ability of a salesperson to adopt multiple perspectives, determine the best emotional state to focus on while interacting with customers, deal with the emotional process generated by shock or refusal, and deal with complex interpersonal situations. Moreover, managing emotions enables the salesperson to connect to positive, or disconnect to negative, emotions when the situation requires. 

Yet, despite its much vaunted value, Emotional Intelligence has met with relatively disappointing results in terms of training outcomes and sales practice. Drawing from previous peer research, McFarland states two likely reasons for this: first, that assessment of the impact of EI has relied almost extensively on self-reporting tools – with the result that respondents are prone to providing fake or biased replies. And second, that the tools used to assess EI are flawed, mostly measure personality factors and not EI. However, when the appropriate measurement tools and conceptualization are indeed employed, research still finds that the so-called ability to improve sales performance does not bear out. So does EI matter? Yes, but only indirectly.

New research, clearer proof – though still with a “but” 

Richard McFarland and his fellow researchers decided to choose a different angle and measure EI impact on 142 sales reps at a Fortunate 500 company using both the MSCEIT model of EI that focuses on ability and context, and appraisal theory. Moving away from previous research, EI was approached as a moderator – that is, a tool for alleviating or facilitating issues and relationships in a given situation – more than as something having a direct effect on sales performance. McFarland and his colleagues developed a contingency model proposing that salesperson Emotional Intelligence moderates the harmful effects of role stress on three work outcomes—emotional exhaustion, customer-oriented selling, and sales performance. This contingency view of Emotional Intelligence demonstrated that EI was important in work settings, but only under certain conditions – work climate, context, and individual differences all having an effect on the impact of EI. Indeed, according to results, salesperson emotional intelligence seems to play an important role in moderating situations that have the potential to elicit strong emotional responses – including role stress, ambiguity, fulfilling the long-term needs of the customer, or building positive customer relations. 

Conclusions for sales managers and HR

Research on the role stress salespeople often face – with its harmful effect on important sales outcomes such as emotional exhaustion and sales performance – tends to suggest that managers should seek to reduce the causes of stress. Typical initiatives among companies and teams may include delegating, limiting responsibilities and improving planning and organizational skills. However, organizations may be faced with systemic pressures which make it difficult for them to implement these changes. In this event, firms may wish to hire more emotionally intelligent salespeople and use EI training for existing personnel. Using a sound psychometric tool such as the MSCEIT makes it feasible to employ EI as a means of selection criterion and career development planning in many sales organizations. McFarland recommends that companies avoid using self-reported EI instruments which, as already mentioned, are frequently subject to faking and self-report bias and highly correlated with personality factors.

Stress in the sales function will never go away and indeed provides some of the necessary positive motivation associated with it to achieve. When it does rise dangerously high – as was the case with our sales hero, Willy Loman – claims that Emotional Intelligence will act as a miracle cure are overblown. However, Richard McFarland’s research has proven that Emotional Intelligence interventions are indeed likely to be beneficial when high levels of role stress, and role ambiguity in particular, are present. Life of a Salesman – it is perhaps time to re-write that play. 

Useful links:

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