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A Simple Management Technique to Score More Goals, in the World Cup and Sales

James Pember

July 8th, 2014

Editors Note: Guest post by contributor James Pember. James is the CEO of Sparta Sales, a platform that helps sales teams drive competitions in order to boost sales, motivation and energy.

With the World Cup currently taking the world by storm and the semifinals coming up today, I’ve thought a lot about how football managers motivate their players to reach their full potential – and what sales leaders could learn from this.

Did you happen to see the epic finish to the Brazil/Chile game a few nights ago, in which Brazil stole the game away from the Chileans in a penalty shootout? After seeing that, I decided to take a deeper look at how football manager’s motivate their players to take those shots under extreme pressure, and how sales leaders can use similar tactics to motivate their teams to smash their targets.

How Motivational Language Affects Performance

A pair of researchers (Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins) wrote a fantastic book on motivation called Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World to Power Success and Influence. For all sales managers, it’s definitely worth picking up – it’s a relatively easy read and definitely includes a lot of actionable insights.

During their research they studied professional football players in Germany and how they responded to motivational pressure from their coaches. Specifically, they studied how different motivational language would affect different personality types and their hit rates during penalty shootouts.

Example 1. Promotion vs Prevention

One of the core concepts outlined in the book is that there are essentially two different types of people, when it comes to motivation – those driven by promotion and those driven by prevention. As I’m sure you can guess, those characterized as “promotion-types” are driven by hitting goals and progression, whilst those “prevention-types” are driven are more focused on safety and maintaining the status-quo or even just keeping their job.

Study: German Football Players and Motivation

Now, as I explained – the study was focused on German football players and how motivational language would affect their performance. The team was split into two groups – “promotion-types” and “prevention-types”. The players were to take 5 penalty shots on goal.

The coach then told the promotion-types:

“I want you to put at least 3 or more into the net”.

The coach instructed the prevention-types:

“I want you to NOT miss two, or more”.

Then, to control – a separate group of players were given the opposite instructions, according to their “motivation type” (prevention vs promotion).

As you can see, everyone is being told the same thing – score 3/5 shots, however – the language is very different. The promotion-types are driven by hitting a goal, whilst the prevention-types are given a very different type of motivation, almost a “do not fail” type of message.

So, What Happened?

Well, the results were fairly interesting. If you were a promotion-type player, you scored more goals if you were given this goal-orientated promotion language. If you were prevention-type player, you scored more goals if you were given the don’t miss, don’t-lose-prevention language.

Motivating Salespeople: Language

So, let’s say two salespeople have a target of $80,000 per month. Your promotional-type sales rep probably thinks something like this:

“Let’s crush this target and get to $150,000!”

On the other hand, the prevention-type will be thinking:

“Ok, I need to bank one $20k deal per week to make sure I’m OK”

Here’s the thing though – perhaps the best sales reps should be promotion-types driven by targets and recognition? Another book (Drive by Daniel Pink) explores exactly that – that bonuses and promotions work extremely well on salespeople and not say, software engineers for exactly that reason – that salespeople are fundamentally driven by recognition and hitting goals.

Now, that’s not to say that those goals and rewards have to be financial, in fact – there has been plenty of research that has shown financial incentives are not as powerful as non-financial – but the fact remains the same, great salespeople are driven by hitting targets.


I’m sure you have a mix of “prevention-types” and “promotion-types” in your organization – so it’s critical that you tailor the messages and goals accordingly. Perhaps your first task is to uncover what motivation type your reps are in the first place, then you can start working on how you set goals and use motivational language in order to get the most out of your team.

Good luck!

About the author

James Pember

James is the CEO of Sparta, a web based platform for running sales competitions that boost energy, motivation and results.

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