fear of failure in sales

How Fear Of Rejection Leads To Failure In Sales

Today’s business environment tends to emphasize a culture of more, one that sets a high standard of get it done yesterday. So many people — and the organizations they work for — are expecting excellence: excellence in reaching/exceeding goals; excellence in improving selling and service behaviors/skills; excellence across the board.

To foster that kind of excellence, leaders may set ambitious goals for their team members, offer them training or “stretch assignments” and tell them what they need to do to get to that next level. But all too often, they and their employees end up frustrated with the results. In fact, in every Integrity Coaching workshop I facilitate, I’ll ask coaches, managers and leaders this simple question:

Elisa Matthews

“Have you ever asked someone to try something new, clearly articulated a goal or provided training in a particular skill, and yet the person just doesn’t do it?”

The answer is always, overwhelmingly, yes.

It can be exasperating for leaders when their salespeople have gone through training and know what they need to do to reach higher, achieve more, fulfill their potential — and yet they still don’t do it.

When I ask workshop participants what they think the issue might be, the most popular response is: fear of failure.

In fact, fear of failure in sales is just one of many inner beliefs and emotions that can keep people from doing what they know they should be doing to get where they want to go. It’s also why, in the absence of the appropriate mindset, coaching and support, this culture of more can backfire. People become overwhelmed, burned out and worried that they just don’t have what it takes. And more often than not, that belief turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be urging our salespeople to push past their plateaus and go for the big goals. But as leaders and coaches, it’s up to us to recognize and help them break through their self-imposed barriers. Just as important is to recognize that more isn’t always the right answer.

Let’s take a closer look at the inner beliefs that can get in the way of sales success, how managers impact what their people are willing to do, and some key coaching steps that will help people build up their confidence and motivation to really go for it.

How Fear of Failure in Sales Impacts Success

Particularly over the past few years, the sales role hasn’t been an easy one. Even for your most seasoned reps and star performers, it’s been a challenge to navigate all the changes and complexities, not to mention the ongoing questions about the economy. These external issues can weigh heavily on your salespeople, whether they’re aware of it or not. In fact, what’s going on at the subconscious level is often more consequential to their success than what’s at the surface. That’s because a salesperson’s internal beliefs, fears and assumptions are what drive their ability to sell and to achieve higher levels of performance.

Most people sell what they unconsciously believe they should be selling. Their inner beliefs line up the behaviors, habits, actions and attitudes that they then carry out. If, deep down, they don’t feel like they have what it takes to hit a certain goal, it doesn’t matter that they know, intellectually, what activities they need to perform to reach it. Their emotions will overrule their logic and knowledge. So while they may know they need to pursue that big opportunity in order to reach their quota, when fear of rejection and failure sets in, it causes them to stall and avoid.

If someone has recently experienced a string of rejections, or if they’re struggling to adapt to longer sales cycles and other realities of today’s sales environment, their confidence could already be low, further fueling their fears. As these kinds of negative emotions accumulate, the person ends up defeated before they even get started.

How Sales Managers Influence the Fear of Failure

While fear of failure in sales is rooted in an individual’s inner beliefs, experiences and views of what’s possible for them and what they deserve to achieve,  the manager’s actions, behaviors and mindset have a profound influence on all of these factors as well. We see this play out all the time in a phenomenon called the law of limited performance, which shows that people gravitate toward the level of performance their manager telegraphs that they can achieve.

For example, if you keep telling a salesperson what they “need to do” to hit their goal and they still don’t do it, you might decide that the person just doesn’t have what it takes. The employee will pick up on those signals — signals that might be confirming what they were already thinking anyway — and plateau out.

A related issue is the manager’s perception of what a contributing employee looks like. Ask yourself, are my expectations realistic? Is it reasonable to expect that people should be giving “110%” all the time, every time?

When 100% is no longer good enough, people begin to feel that they’re never going to be able to do enough to meet what’s expected — that no matter what they do, they won’t measure up. Under these kinds of circumstances, it’s no wonder sales burnout is so high.

And then there’s the goal-setting process itself. When faced with one big goal of “I have to attain [this daunting number I’ve never achieved before]” by the end of the year, people often feel overwhelmed and may even expect to fail. Especially when people can’t find the personal “why” in the goal or it seems arbitrarily assigned to them with no sense of where it came from, it becomes a lot easier to disconnect and lose the passion it takes to really go for it.

A Sales Coaching Process that Builds Confidence

Rather than setting some big goals, expecting excellence and waiting for salespeople either to sink or swim, it’s the manager’s job to act and coach in a way that breaks down fear and allows people the space to grow and achieve more.

I often hear managers and leaders say, “I don’t have time to coach.” But the truth is, coaching is a matter of priorities, not time. If you want employees to overcome their fear of failure and reach their true potential, coaching has to be a priority.

Many managers shy away from coaching their employees because they simply don’t know what to do. In other cases, they’ll decide to just wing it and figure it out as they go. To coach effectively, you have to do it consistently and you have to be prepared. Otherwise, the conversations tend to turn into “coaching by the numbers” and reviewing mistakes. The point of coaching isn’t to micromanage; it’s to have meaningful developmental discussions that will build confidence and ownership so your employees can achieve their goals.

Here is a flexible, 5-step coaching process managers and leaders can use as a framework for productive coaching:

coaching model pillars

Ask: Ask questions about not just business goals but personal goals as well. What do they want to accomplish? What do they want to improve? Why do they want to be in sales? Why is achieving their goals important to them? Dig deeper with open-ended questions to help the person discover their own motivations and what really matters to them.

Listen: As a coach, you should be doing more listening than speaking. Listen to not just what they say but also what’s between the lines of what they’re saying. Pay attention to body language, tone and other ways we communicate. Above all, create a safe environment so people will feel free to honestly tell you what’s really on their mind and where their fear of failure in sales might be coming from.

Coach: That’s the operative word, but what does it mean? It doesn’t mean listing out everything the person has done wrong or solving all their problems for them. Instead, coach to specific issues and instill confidence in them by helping them work through how they can achieve the personal and professional goals they’ve already articulated to you.

Praise: Some managers will question why they need to praise their employees since they, personally, don’t need or expect it. This isn’t about you, though. And we can’t assume people will know they’re appreciated or that their achievements have been recognized if we don’t say something. Again, being specific is important. Go beyond “good job” or focusing just on the number. Highlight specifically what they did and what they’ve accomplished. Encourage the practice among your employees as well. It’s amazing what a culture of praise can do for morale, engagement and teamwork.

Challenge: Coaching is about helping people rise up to the next level, and that includes challenging them to achieve more. As a coach, this means being able to see more in your people than they see in themselves, and creating an environment where they believe that you believe they can reach higher.

As a final step, follow up regularly to hold your people accountable to what they’ve committed to doing and recognize progress along the way.

Tips for Coaching Salespeople Beyond the Fear

Coaching salespeople beyond the fear is as much about your mindset as it is about your employees’ — because the law of limited performance has a positive corollary: People will rise up to the level of belief that their managers express in them, if you provide the support and tools they need to overcome their own belief boundaries.

Here are some tips for coaching your salespeople to move past their fears and insecurities:

Understand your people and where they are

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and everyone isn’t on equal footing. You need to see and listen to the individual in front of you and recognize where they are and what’s going to engage with them in a meaningful way. So be flexible and tailor your approach. The overall coaching process will stay the same, but it needs to be applied per person, not per expectation.

Make sales goal setting more productive

Managers can reduce the sense of overwhelm and burnout by working with their employees to break goals down into manageable chunks, with progress checks along the way. It’s important that the salespeople own their goals, so support them by helping them think through what success looks like, why it matters to them and how they’re going to get there.

Recalibrate your expectations

We need to get better at celebrating micro-movements towards the bigger ambition. After all, some progress isn’t the same as none. And if we ignore or criticize a halfway accomplishment, we cut off the potential for an employee to grow and develop. They won’t want to even attempt it in the future because they don’t want to fail or be reprimanded. Remember again that everyone is different, so 85% may be the most this person has ever achieved, and that deserves to be recognized.

Coach to unlock potential

Some managers confuse coaching with corrective action, and as a result, the way they “coach” almost implies that people are failing. Effective coaching is about maximizing the potential of each individual on your team. It’s about opening up discussion, listening and helping people release their own inner achievement drive. This requires building trust so that people feel encouraged to try new things and push themselves outside their comfort zones. It’s not the time for punitive discussions.

Give people permission to fail and experiment

Trying — and sometimes failing — is how you learn, especially when it comes to new or complex assignments. When failures happen, make it a forward-thinking conversation, not a lecture. Lead with something they did well, then ask what they could have anticipated and what they might do differently going forward.  

Eliminate Fear of Failure in Sales, Not Failure Itself

Human beings are fallible. You can’t eliminate failure entirely, nor do you necessarily want to in all cases. Despite all the baggage that comes with it, failure isn’t a bad word. Particularly when we’re asking people to stretch outside their comfort zones and try new things, failure is an important part of the learning and development process. Instead of striving for perfection, managers need to focus on reducing that stigma and fear of failure in sales and building up the inner confidence and belief in self to persevere, even when the going gets tough.

As a coach, manager or leader, engage your emotional intelligence by recognizing halfway as the point on the path to whole. Praise your team members’ progress and engage your social skills by communicating, listening and asking for a little bit more. Remember, large increases in your team members’ current belief boundaries are grown incrementally. Give them the professional space needed to allow for this growth vs. setting the bar above their perceived attainable reach. This develops the start of those good professional habits you are seeking, and your team members will then have the bandwidth and skill awareness to achieve more.

About the Author

Elisa Matthews

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