“Put that coffee down! Coffee’s for closers only”, Alec Baldwin’s character yells in the most famous scene from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. While his brief, 8-minute cameo is one of the most memorable parts of the movie, his monologue also serves as an accurate stereotype for sales cultures across the ’90s and 2000s. Tons of pressure, comparing the watch you wear and the car you drive, references to sales being analogous to dating, and multiple jabs about whether or not the people in the room are ‘man’ enough to do the job. If you’ve worked in sales in the last 20 years there’s a good chance you’ve either heard a reference to this scene, made one yourself, or even played the movie in your office.
There’s a tendency to think that the movie might be a bit dated or that sales as a profession has evolved considerably in that time. Unfortunately, a recent LinkedIn study puts the percentage of women in sales at only 39%, an increase of only 3% over the last decade. The more senior the sales role, the less likely a woman is in the seat. Sales represents the lowest percentage of VP or C-suite positions within organizations compared to other functions. And as recently as last month, Drift Inc. faced backlash over a chauvinistic speech sales training ‘expert’ Grant Cardone delivered at their Hypergrowth Conference.
The silver lining on this cloud is that for several reasons (public pressure, concern on business impact from the Board, or simply being the right thing to do) organizations and leaders are starting to pay attention. A recent study by Mind Gym investigated what factors might cause the Glengarry-ish behaviors to thrive within a company’s culture, sales or otherwise. The three main drivers include:
1. Unrestrained initiators
The people with influence who abuse their powers and are left unchecked or unchallenged (the Alec Baldwin character). As people gain more power in their careers, the skills they needed to be successful (empathy, collaboration, etc.) tend to be less important. Power can have a negative impact on everyone whether we like it or not.
2. Silent subjects
People who don’t feel able to speak up when they see this happen to themselves and others. Bystanders and individuals don’t always know the behaviors to look out for, or what to do when they see it. This can cause them to feel stuck in seeking support if they are on the receiving end or how to deal with the behavior if they witness it.
3. Permissive environment
A culture that permits or may even encourage such behavior. Bullying and harassment can take many forms. While some of the more obvious ones can be easy to spot (verbal/physical) some of the less obvious (nonverbal/invisible) can also erode a culture. Are our most successful salespeople the lone wolves that run over everyone to achieve their targets and then celebrated in the aftermath?
So what can sales and business leaders do?
Limit the abuse of power
Here’s where sales leaders could use some introspection. Do you typically come across as a ‘buddy’ (too close/inappropriate), ‘bully’ (criticism, humiliation, straining tasks) or ‘boss’ (no feedback, exclusionary)? The right balance is being respectful of boundaries while also providing descriptive feedback, precision coaching, and stretching but not straining targets. There’s also a need to check your behavior – when you find yourself role modeling an old boss it’s worth asking if this behavior is still considered acceptable at work.
Give permission and voice
The first challenge is seeing the behavior for what it is. The second is helping people to understand that there’s nothing wrong with calling out disrespectful behavior. With many people, their self-identity can get in the way as there’s a dissonance between how we see ourselves (successful, driven sales person) and not wanting to come across as a ‘victim’.
Create the conditions for respect
The most important step, as getting this right can be a remedy for the other two. Do people on your team believe they are a capable, significant, and worthy member of the organization? Sales can be a very siloed and remote position and managers need to be attentive to what’s going on, know if someone is suffering, and be able to take the right steps if an incident does occur. Managers also can’t be afraid to set standards for their team by role-modeling respectful, inclusionary behavior.
We all have a role to play at work when it comes to challenging inappropriate behavior. Individuals have a choice to make between being a colluder, a bystander, or someone that speaks up and intervenes when the situation calls for it. It’s our job as leaders to set the tone from the top and to also provide our managers and people with the skills they need to make a difference. While ‘coffee is for people that challenge outdated norms’ doesn’t have the same ring to it, it’s more likely to move us forward as a function.