Motivating salespeople – lessons from West Point

Lessons from West Point for motivating salespeople

Lessons from West Point for motivating salespeople

What can 11,320 cadets entering nine West Point classes tell salespeople about motivation?  As it turns out – maybe a lot according to a recent study.

As reported in a New York Times article, upon entering the cadets rated how much a set of motives influenced their decisions to attend the academy.  Two types of motives were studied.  For example, motives included a desire to get a good job later in life – considered to be an instrumental motive because the relationship was indirect – and a desire to be trained as a leader in the U.S. Army – an internal motive since there was an inherent relationship between the decision and the end result.

What’s interesting to us is how the cadets fared after graduating. As the study authors (Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz) report:

“The stronger their internal motives were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers. Also unsurprisingly, cadets with internal motives did better in the military (as evidenced by early promotion recommendations) than did those without internal motives and were also more likely to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service – unless (and this is the surprising part) they also had strong instrumental motives.

They went on to share:

“Remarkably, cadets with strong internal and strong instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones. They were less likely to graduate, less outstanding as military officers and less committed to staying in the military.”

The authors believe the implication of these findings is significant:

“Whenever a person performs a task well, there are typically both internal and instrumental consequences. A conscientious student learns (internal) and gets good grades (instrumental). A skilled doctor cures patients (internal) and makes a good living (instrumental). But just because activities can have both internal and instrumental consequences does not mean that the people who thrive in these activities have both internal and instrumental motives.

And here’s where the implications for salespeople comes in:

“Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns is the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success.”

All of us in Sales, regardless what we do, have a propensity to focus on whatever it takes to get salespeople motivated – whether internal or instrumental motives.

The authors conclude:

“Rendering an activity more attractive by emphasizing both internal and instrumental motives is completely understandable, but it may have the unintended effect of weakening the internal motives so essential to success.”

What do you think? What are the implications for how we train, manage and coach, and compensate salespeople?

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About Janet Spirer

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. Janet has followed two different, yet complimentary paths. First, as a B-School Professor she taught marketing, sales, and business strategy courses. She also managed a consulting practice focusing on sales productivity and marketing – working with a variety of clients ranging from Xerox to IBM. She translated those experiences into a book – “Parlez-Vous Business” – that helps sales people develop the business savvy to sell successfully. Since co-founding Sales Momentum® in 2000 with Richard Dr. Spirer received her Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, an M.P.A. from The University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. in Economics from Brooklyn College. She holds the appointment of Professor Emeritus at Marymount University.
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