How NOT To Motivate Your Sales Team

Strength in NumbersConvinced you have the worst boss or worst job on the planet? I beg to differ. If you don’t believe me, read the article, “Waterboarding: Boss’s bizarre ‘team-building’ leads to lawsuit.” (

You read that right. May 29, 2007, Chad Hudgens was waterboarded as a motivational exercise. According to the article, Hudgens volunteered for what he thought would be a routine team-building exercise (as he noted, “Keep in mind, the last time we did a team-building exercise outside, we did an egg toss.”). Instead his coworkers held him down while he lay on a hill and poured water over his face, while his supervisor tried to inspire the team to greater sales by saying, “You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there. I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales.”

(As an aside, I have no doubt that it worked. After all, if a member of your team just got waterboarded for low sales, you’d be “inspired” to work a lot harder, too, I bet.) It’s very important to get new customers with sales enablement.

This article just boggles the mind. How could this happen, especially in this day and age of the 24/7 waterboarding scandal media marathon? Why didn’t someone just say no? What’s even worse, the company is trying to blow this off as no big deal, as if Hudgens is somehow blowing the whole event out of proportion. And they’re serious – they really don’t see what all the fuss is about.

So how does something like this happen? As it happens, there’s a very good reason. Several in fact. And if you don’t think something like this could happen to you or your business, read on.

*Groupthink. Groupthink is what happens when any group gets so insular, so isolated from the outside and so reliant on internal consensus and the desire to avoid conflict that decisions are made without critical thought, external reference points or rational perspective. The tighter and more stressed a group is, the more likely groupthink is to surface. In the article, it’s plain to see that this company was ripe for groupthink. They were missing sales, stressed to the point of breaking and there was a company atmosphere of punitive measures to enforce metrics. “It is a big pressure cooker in there, I’ll tell you,” said Hudgens. “…low performers were threatened with ‘the Cure Team’ — two weeks to improve or you’re fired.”

*Conformity bias. This is the tendency to do what others around you are doing, regardless of your own beliefs. It’s an amazingly strong compulsion – studies have shown repeatedly that almost everyone will choose the same false or incorrect answer that the others in the group (who are actually plants) have chosen, even though they know the answer is wrong. A preponderance of opposition makes us doubt our own judgment (maybe we are being too serious, or not seeing something), even in extreme examples.

*Group polarization. Groups will make riskier decisions than the individuals of that group would otherwise make. We get carried away by mob mentality, and no doubt feel protected by the presence of consensus and lack of specific blame. So we go along with things we might not otherwise be willing to risk.

Groupthink and its results can be disturbingly quick to set in, and very difficult to shake free of. The best-known case of this is probably the Stanford Prison Experiment (, in which a psychological study set up to observe how students would react in a prison setup (with half being randomly chosen as guards, and the other half as inmates) devolved within a matter of weeks into an Abu Ghraib-like nightmare, complete with physical and mental torture, emotional breakdowns and long-term psychological damage. What’s even more compelling is that the study was only halted when someone outside the group saw what was going on. Those in the study (even the professors who were supposed to be monitoring it) were too caught up in the events to see how far it had gone.

The fact is, any sufficiently insular group can fall prey to groupthink, if there are no external frames of reference to gauge actions against, and if there is no freedom to speak up or dissent without repercussions.

So how can you protect your company or group from getting caught up in such a nightmare? A few simple steps can make all the difference: Run ideas past others who have no vested interest in playing along. Mix teams up from time to time to prevent group dynamics from hardening into groupthink. Use positive, rather than punitive, means to enforce rules and create motivation. Assign specific people to play devil’s advocate in any project or endeavor. Don’t allow pressure-cooker situations to go unrelieved – sometimes taking a day off can result in better, faster results than pushing through and burning people out.

Oh, and if it involves torture or something that even vaguely resembles torture, please – just say no.

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