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The Greatest Competitive Advantage You’ll Ever Know: Mental Health

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Sellers are three times more likely to struggle with mental health symptoms than the average American. 2 in 5 sellers struggled with mental health in 2019, and these numbers were from last year. What do you think that means for sellers now that the national average is 33%?

Much of this is due to the nature of our profession, but it’s made worse because most sellers today operate in toxic work environments.

So, yes, it’s time to start a conversation about mental health on your sales team.

So strap in, because it’s about to get real, folks. We’re going to learn why mental health is so important for your sales success and three simple steps to begin improving yours. Because when you begin the process to elevate your mental health, you set yourself up for the most substantial competitive advantage any of us will ever know.

My Story

I took stock of the impressive craft room. The smell of acrylic paint was still foreign but seemed less so mingled with the garlic wafting from the kitchen.

I was far away from my urban jungle. A serene escape somewhere in the mountains of Tennessee. Despite the enviable amenities, there was no shaking its purpose — a retreat for addicts and the mentally vulnerable.

I looked down at the expressionless cardboard face staring up at me. The assignment seemed simple enough. Decorate the face you present to the world, and then again, you on the inside. I had not touched an art assignment since grade school, but I went to work, oblivious to the irritation fading slowly away.

The front was simple. I managed to craft a perfect exterior — smooth skin, flawless makeup (Watercolors nail the natural vibe).

The inside of my mask was another story, though.

After three days of mixing and layering, the swirling variations of grey and blue and white acrylics were finally coming together. The gloss and glitter were a nice touch, I thought.

The effect was undeniable — a sheet of ice.

Any pleasure derived from the beauty of my finished project was short-lived, though. At that moment, I realized the point of the project and what I had been doing to myself.

In my quest to handle all the negative emotions that come with the job — rejection, fear, stress, uncertainty, doubt — I swept them away. I was cold to protect myself. But there is no such thing as only freezing out bad emotions.

If you get rid of some, you get rid of them all.

So little by little, year after year, I managed to freeze all my feelings away. That is until they all revolted.

This is just a part of my mental health story, but chances are you or someone you know in sales has felt the same way.

Many of your peers are likely struggling with their mental health, and many of those may even be unaware that the symptoms they’re experiencing are unhealthy or unusual.

Thankfully, mental health conversations are becoming more common. A strong signal that the stigma is lifting, finally.

What’s not so amazing is that the overwhelming majority of mental-health content seems to primarily fixate on negative symptoms like depression and anxiety.

There are three problems with this:

  • It’s misleading because the absence of symptoms does not equate to health.
  • It provides no baseline for what mental health is.
  • And It hinders the more impactful dialogues like ‘how-to cultivate great mental health’ or ‘why.’

So, let’s start changing the narrative and begin focusing on how to improve your mental health no matter where you are right now.

Win the Battle Against the Sales Filter Bubble

The year before my, err, trip to Tennessee, I hit my annual quota three months into the year. I won a major company-wide award for champion-building, beating out 50,000 colleagues. I keynoted a conference for Christ’s sake.

There were flare-ups, obviously, but few tangible symptoms (yet).

But this brings up an important point. Top performance is not indicative of health.

Jeff Riseley, the founder of the Sales Health Alliance, expressed similar sentiments during a recent Surf and Sales Podcast.

On paper, he was crushing it. But behind the scenes, in the middle of the night, he describes being in “the worst possible way.” When asked if he knew something was wrong, he said that he was completely unaware.

Here’s Jeff:

“The common belief in sales is that you’re supposed to go through these ups and downs. There’s this idea, and this culture, as it’s talked about, it’s normal. And the drinking culture is surrounding sales. All totally normal.”

Sellers aren’t the only ones lacking knowledge of mental health, though. Through outdated mindsets and strategies, sales leaders can create toxic work environments.

Many sales leaders attempt to control their team’s efforts down to the day and task. They’ll even micro-manage those who are already hitting their numbers. They rely on their own personal experience — now long outdated — to determine which tactics to mandate.

RELATED: PODCAST 47: Key Qualities of great Sales Leadership w/ Dan Fougere

They actually buy into the concept that selling no longer requires any art. This closed-mindedness keeps most people oblivious to the rapidly-increasing research on productivity, success, happiness, motivation, and focus — all byproducts of mental health.

They are oblivious to the research that debunks legacy sales productivity and performance wisdom.

Take this Harvard researcher, for example, who reported a 37% improvement in sales performance after a complete overhaul of the definition of performance success. (And one of the funniest TedTalk yet, in my opinion.)

The evidence quantifying the benefits of mental health and wellness programs is piling up.

Even Deloitte has weighed in with reports like, “The ROI in workplace mental health programs: Good for people, good for business.”

And a big problem is how Sales traditionally promotes new sales leaders. This may seem like a tangent, but I promise it’s worth it.

The sales community does not have a good track record with sales manager promotions or manager skill development. We promote sellers to manager roles who have the technical skills to do the job but little to no formal or continuous training after the fact.

To put this in perspective, back in 2008, Google set out to determine what makes a manager great at Google — an effort appropriately titled Project Oxygen.

Unsurprisingly, “the data quickly revealed that managers did matter: teams with great managers were happier and more productive.

The project went on to list the eight common behaviors that all great managers had.

What was last on the list?

You guessed it — technical skills.

It gets worse.

Back in 1969, Dr. Lawrence J. Peter wrote a book called The Peter Principle in which he describes the inherent flaws in promoting people who are the best at their current job.

People inevitably continue to be promoted until they are no longer good at their jobs.

In 2018, a team of Harvard researchers decided to put the Peter Principle to the test by examining the performance of sellers and sales managers at 214 firms. And here’s a taste of what they found, “when top performing salespeople are promoted to management, each higher sales rank they have correlates with a 7.5% decline in sales performance.

Clearly, manager performance directly correlates to the team’s ability to generate revenue. And poor management is the leading cause of high turnover rates — a massive expense to the bottom line.

Yet only 16% of sales leaders are confident with their current sales talent. And these are the same leaders who see no value (or responsibility?) in training their manager-coaches or support staff.

All this blame-shifting takes a toll on everyone’s mental health.

Beyond that, what about other human-to-human elements managers do or don’t do that impact the team’s mental health. Things like:

  • Proactive outreach during COVID?
  • Public statements made to denounce racism in support of Black Live Matter?
  • Adjusting quotas in line with adjustments made to revenue projections?

Is anyone surprised then that 50% of sellers report micromanaging as having the most detrimental impact on their mental health? Are you surprised that most sellers do not feel fulfilled with their jobs?

Perhaps the most soul-crushing of all is the hopelessness many individuals experience when looking to progress professionally. There are many people uninterested in sales management. Yet they find no other career tracks at all.

Let’s review the facts:

The majority of mental-health content fixates on the treatment of symptoms, barely addressing the root cause.

The mental health challenges plaguing our profession appear to be nearly universal.

The sales echo chamber continues to recycle and reinforce inaccurate beliefs about productivity and performance.

And the majority of sellers will continue to endure unpleasant environments making their ability to transcend mentally that much more difficult.

This all leads to only one logical conclusion…

Improving your mental health now can lead to the biggest competitive advantage you will ever know.

Master the Mental Health Fundamentals

Call it what you will. Mental Health. Mental toughness. Productivity. Performance. Mindset. Focus. Motivation. Essentialism. Resilience. Wellness. Mindfulness. Headspace. Happiness. Vulnerability. Perseverance. Stillness. Even Stoicism.

Regardless of the name you identify with the most, they all advocate for the same course of action — a proactive reclaiming of our own heads.

Your mental health is just as real as your physical health. Your mental health is a combination of your thoughts, feelings, and even your body sensations. It influences how you perceive the world around you.

The health of your mind falls across a spectrum, just as your productivity and performance would.

And this is the same spectrum that everyone else is on too.

Once you can visualize that your mental health lies somewhere on this continuum, you begin to recognize that learning to master your thoughts and feelings is essential to your health and wellness.

Your mind is a muscle. You can train it, and ultimately, you can make it exponentially stronger.

Jennifer Eberhardt, the best-selling author of Biased, and a neuroscience researcher at Stanford said:

“The brain is not a hardwired machine. It’s a malleable organ that responds to the environments we are placed in and the challenges we face. This view of the brain runs counter to what most of us learned in science class. The whole idea of neuroplasticity runs counter to what scientists believed to be true for centuries.”

She goes on to highlight three important points:

  • The most intriguing lessons come from watching people with normal brain functions acquire unusual skills.
  • Basic practice and repetition can retrain our brains.
  • This transformation can happen fast.

Rewiring your brain the way that Jennifer mentions requires work and discipline. This is something most won’t do. But being disciplined when most are not is precisely what cultivating a competitive advantage is all about.

As the old adage goes, if it were easy, everyone would do it.

Three Simple Steps to Cultivate a Competitive Headspace

The following steps briefly outline a plan to rewire your brain. These how-tos are practical and grounded in principle, so you can use them in every role and aspect of your life.

Step 1: Get Present and Evaluate

Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?

Morpheus: Because you’ve never used them.

It’s human nature to fret over the past and future. Will this deal close? Am I going to hit my quota this month? The stress is never-ending.

But this worry is wasted energy. Energy much better invested elsewhere. And you have a choice.

Learning to discipline your mind is work that only occurs in real-time. Pull your awareness into the present moment and practice keeping it that way.

Engage with your head as an objective observer. Be ready to interact with your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions as an investigative journalist or scientist would — without judgment.

It’s during these periods of introspection where you learn you are NOT your thoughts and feelings. They are simply guests in your brain.

While you cannot change their arrival per se, there is power in recognizing they can be neutralized or leveraged when we learn how to interpret them differently.

Stoicism — the ancient philosophy recently socialized by the great Ryan Holiday — calls this effort The Discipline of Perception. To learn to see things for what they are.

In his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius astutely notes,

The present is the same for everyone; Its loss is the same for everyone, and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future. How could you lose what you don’t have?

It’s easy to get lost in yet another binge-worthy Netflix series or your Facebook feed. It’s harder to be alone with our thoughts and reflect on our decisions of the day.

Take your attention back from worry about the past or future. Take it back from all the external circumstances or obstacles you perceive. Take it back from the news and social media, all designed to hook you. And instead, bring your attention back into the present.

This is where the real work begins.

Step 2: Eliminate

In this step, we focus on eliminating the bad thoughts that you got better at recognizing in step one. Once you become practiced at keeping your attention in the present, and away from dark thoughts, injecting gratitude into your thought-rotation is natural.

This was actually a big stretch for me initially. Rather than lose myself in what appeared to be an extreme lift, I opted to no longer entertain harmful thought patterns — AKA cognitive distortions.

From there, I incrementally worked into gratitude from there.

If eating healthy is too daunting, start by eliminating unhealthy food from your diet. If exercising seems like too much, start by sitting on the couch less.

This is not an elimination for the sake of eliminating, mind you. It’s a pruning of the proverbial closet. It’s an opportunity to recenter and focus on the task at hand with purpose, intention, and design.

Tune Out the White Noise and reduce your number of choices. Cut back on the news and social media, or, better yet, eliminate it for a short period of time.

Your mind will thank you for it.

Step 3: Embrace the Process

Today’s mainstream definition of success is, in a word, shit. It’s based on an outcome somewhere off in the future.

For sellers, that “outcome” is never satiated. There’s always another month, another goal, and another account to score. This outdated performance framework is a trap that keeps us from realizing the life-altering potential that the diligent pursuit of incremental progress brings.

The mental health process is a journey inward. Your brain is just another muscle on a spectrum of wellness. Moving the bar requires work and practice. You have to show up and work without a clear destination per se.

Cultivating a competitive headspace requires you to compete against yesterday’s version of yourself. And to recommit to the effort daily.

I, for one, still have a long way to go. And I’m loving every almost every step.

A New Mental Health Conversation

The Paradigm is shifting on the mental health conversation.

If you want to ensure that competitive advantage for yourself and your team, the time to begin focusing on your mental health is NOW.

Make sure to first fasten your own “mental health” oxygen mask.

Then, look for like-minded peers who are also looking to level up their own headspace. Consider posting this article on the team’s Slack channel and see who engages.

Finally, create a standing meeting to discuss tips, tricks, or progress for everyone’s mental health journey. Work together.

And, of course, feel free to follow me and reach out to me as I continue telling it like it is and hopefully continue to convey tips and tricks about thriving in the sales world.

 

Like what you read? Have questions, suggestions, or comments? Head over to the community and join the conversation!

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    • Profile picture of Rodney Noriega
      @rnoriega
      ( 620 POINTS )
      4 months ago

      It’s unfortunate that toxic culture in sales is still the norm, and that salespeople feel like they have to “tough it out” at the expense of their mental health.

      Success can reinforce behavior. Toxic cultures that achieve quota will continue to be toxic. Sales leaders will drive behavior based on what’s worked for them, which can sometimes cause micromanagement.

      Part of the problem is that companies stick to what they know. Being open-minded to try something different requires proving that this approach will work to achieve a desired outcome, and in my opinion many people don’t bother because it’s too hard, too much work, and so on.

      • Profile picture of Amy Hrehovcik
        @amyhre
        ( 3.8k POINTS )
        4 months ago

        Well said, Rodney. Fortunately for us, the “do something different” data is in. And it’s powerful. Let the old guard ignore it at their peril. Besides, they’ll be far easier to beat that way.

        I think the path forward is to educate sellers on what *great* env’ts look like, feel like, and PAY like. That way, when the old guard continues to burn through humans like they’re cogs, they’ll be in for a rude awakening.

    • Profile picture of Dae Kang
      @saleslearner
      ( 2.3k POINTS )
      4 months ago

      Amy, this is FANTASTIC!! I love the part on the discipline of perception – engaging with your head as an objective observer of your thoughts and feelings – without judgment. Not wasting time and energy on efforts that are beyond our controllable. I’ve often thought that success meant ‘controlling’ every aspect that it entails and it was EXHAUSTING. I’ve now realized that there is a great sense of freedom in ‘letting go’ and trusting the process. With obedience in the right activities, trusting the results will come due to our honest efforts.

      Also, thank you so much for also mentioning neuroplasticity. I’ve often thought, with ambition and the right coach, anything can be learned. By guiding our thoughts, we CAN change the physical neuron patterns of our brain my guiding our thoughts, the difference between learning and fixed mindset, by Carol S. Dweck. We don’t always have to be ‘stuck.’ Though, easier said than done. 😛

      I know this wisdom applies to all, but thank you for also providing specific contexts for us sales professionals on this topic. 🙂

      • Profile picture of Amy Hrehovcik
        @amyhre
        ( 3.8k POINTS )
        4 months ago

        What kind words, Dae. Thank you. I’m delighted to hear you got so much from it. Truly.

    • Profile picture of Amy Hrehovcik
      @amyhre
      ( 3.8k POINTS )
      3 months, 4 weeks ago

      I feel like this resource should live here.

      https://www.repvue.com/

      It’s the Glassdoor of sales cultures. Worth a visit while evaluating your next move. Or, better yet, weigh in with your past experiences… for the people. 😉

      • Profile picture of Stephanie Lippincott
        @slipps
        ( 2.8k POINTS )
        3 months, 3 weeks ago

        I feel like large nonprofits should be on this list. They have large sales teams disguised as fundraisers and community advocates. Thanks for sharing!

    • Profile picture of Stephanie Lippincott
      @slipps
      ( 2.8k POINTS )
      3 months, 3 weeks ago

      This is a great article and something I’ve experienced first-hand. I quit my job without another one to go to nearly 8 years ago, after hitting my best year in sales ever. It had nothing to do with not being good at my job. My work culture was toxic and no matter what my manager tried to do (she was amazing), she couldn’t completely suppress what was being pushed down to the sales field. It took me nearly a year to put myself back together. Thanks for highlighting this. I hope sales leaders are paying attention.

    • You mentioned the workplace culture around alcohol, but I wanted to also bring up coffee.

      Caffeine is associated with increased anxiety, stress, sleeplessness, dehydration… Not to mention dependency.

      Not healthy to be chugging red bulls all day while you fire off a thousand cold-calls.

      • Profile picture of Stephanie Lippincott
        @slipps
        ( 2.8k POINTS )
        3 months, 3 weeks ago

        Caffeine for sure! I have to limit myself to one cup in the morning and one after lunch in order to not get the jitters!

      • Profile picture of Amy Hrehovcik
        @amyhre
        ( 3.8k POINTS )
        3 months, 3 weeks ago

        Everything in moderation. That said, I do enjoy a good walk with a colleague to a coffee shop, right around 2:45 pm.

    • I think one of the inherent challenges with sales is, as Scott Leese says – it’s the garbage can of careers for people. Most people don’t grow up dreaming about sitting in a cube, selling people stuff all day. (I know that wasn’t my life goal growing up ;). I feel like sales attracts the people who aren’t sure about what they want to do in life, but know they can talk to people, are good at persuading, and see they can make money from it. I wonder how much of the mental health issues are also a part of the types of people that the sales industry attracts. Similar to when I used to work in restaurants…there were some definite common themes among everyone I worked with in multiple place and states (drugs, alcohol, relationship issues, etc).

      • Profile picture of Amy Hrehovcik
        @amyhre
        ( 3.8k POINTS )
        3 months, 1 week ago

        Thank you for joining the discussion, @Jasoncutter. The more, the merrier!

        “Garbage can of careers for most people.”

        Wow. I haven’t heard that one before. I suppose we should agree to disagree. However, since you were kind enough to weigh in, here we go.

        1) While I do not claim to speak for *most people*, I came to this profession after tremendous thought and intention. And I’m not alone.

        2) I see b2b sellers as elite corporate athletes. No garbage cans in sight. (Eww.)

        3) I reference a Surf and Sales podcast episode in the article. Early on, Scott raised a contray point quite similar to the one you highlight above. Richard Harris, his co-host, had a beautiful response that seems fitting since you brought them into it. I’m paraphrasing, but…

        If old school sales leaders don’t get this, I simply dont have time to convince them how wrong they are.

        Naturally, all of this is written out of love. 🙂

        • Totally happy to agree to disagree…but I think I agree with you more than it might have sounded.

          I feel like the ‘garbage can’ part is that a lot of people don’t intend on sales. Maybe they like tech, or business, or marketing, but not playing ‘salesperson’ or ‘SDR’ as a kid in their room 😉

          And I do know there are people who know that they have the skills for sales and choose it intentionally. And then give it all they have.

          Those are the ones who master it over time and do very well – being in the right place for who they are and what they love.

          The rest struggle with success because they aren’t sure if they should be there. They wonder if they are a square peg in a round hole. Most of the time they just need better training, coaching, leadership, and confidence.

          Unfortunately most don’t get it – and then struggle mentally (which your article is all about) and financially.

          I think old school sales leaders treat their team like “I was an amazing sales person, and if you aren’t ‘naturally’ amazing, then get off my team.”

          I appreciate the response, topic, and semi-debate 🙂

          • Profile picture of Amy Hrehovcik
            @amyhre
            ( 3.8k POINTS )
            3 months, 1 week ago

            Well said, @Jasoncutter.

            This: Most of the time they just need better training, coaching, leadership, and confidence.

            Youre very welcome btw. And I enjoy a good semi-debate as well.

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