What Sales Culture Do You Have?

Most sales leaders I speak to have a sales strategy, but Peter Drucker once famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” So what’s your sales culture? Few sales leaders that I meet can accurately describe their sales culture. So, is there a standard way of measuring and defining sales culture? In my book ‘ The Deal Hack’, I propose definitions for sales sales cultures and strategies for improving them. The definitions and strategies are built on the levels of challenge and support that the sales people encounter.

In the 1950s, Professor Nevitt Sanford had an insight concerning the relationship between challenge and support. He saw that too much challenge leads a person to retreat and give up. In such circumstances people perceive a threat and pull back from the challenge, ceasing to develop. We’ve all been in a situation where it’s just too challenging and we retreat. In these types of situations, some sort of support is needed to help cope with new challenges. Support is the stabilizing force that helps make the challenge manageable. It is the support that sustains the person while new and challenging situations are undertaken. Sanford wrote, “If people fail to find support … there is a considerable likelihood they will find the situation intolerable and retreat.”

Conversely, Sanford could also see that too much support could lead to stagnation. Sanford defined stagnation as, “the non-developmental state that results from an environment characterized by too much support.” He compared this to a parent doing everything for their children; effectively, stunting the child’s development by offering them limited opportunities to develop and grow. Too much support can reach the point where it is counterproductive. “The imbalance of support leads to stagnation, a lack of development, and a missed opportunity for growth.”[1]

Optimal Sales Performance

Steve Glowinkowski relates this to the workplace, “The key point about a climate of low challenge is that the employees’ behavioral capabilities are never fully realized, and that part of the fundamental human condition of wanting to be part of something successful is never going to be attained. [2]

Bell CurveThe key to optimising performance, as Sanford saw it, was not to reduce the challenge in situations, but to balance the challenge with adequate support so the two work in harmony. Environments lacking in support, can be damaging, but so, too, can one lacking in challenge. Challenge involves having high expectations of people and helps instill accountability and responsibility.[3] When a person encounters a challenge, they are required to develop new tactics to cope and overcome the challenge. Sanford wrote, “The challenge pushes the person to reach beyond the status quo, and beyond their comfort zone to find a solution.”[4]

According to Sanford, people develop and grow in response to being challenged. For growth to occur there must be a challenge that upsets the existing equilibrium—the status quo—and creates a situation with which existing capability is not able to deal. From this, the person creates a brand-new response that can overcome the challengeAccording to Sanford, “You should work to bring the relationship between challenge and support into a state of optimal mismatch from each person so the ideal state of development is created.” Sanford’s theory predicts there is an optimal situation where success is maximized by offering people sufficient levels of challenge that require new responses and, at the same time, providing sufficient support to confront those challenges.[5] In the book Make ItStick, the authors make this connection in relation to learning which is, “… deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.”[6] Dr. Carol Dweck from Stanford University has also identified the link between challenge and performance, “The more that you challenge your mind to learn, the more your brain cells grow. Then, things that you once found very hard or even impossible seem to become easy. The result is a stronger, smarter brain.”[7] Combine Dweck’s insights with Sanford’s and we see a balance of challenge and support are the environment that can nurture and promote growth mind-sets.

Sanford’s insight about how people develop and grow was based on solid scientific foundations. Robert Yerkes teamed up with colleague John Dodson in 1907 to undertake an experiment to investigate the relationship between the strength of a stimulus and the rate of learning. Mice were put into a box with two doors—one white door and one black. The mice were required to choose the white door and given a “disagreeable electric shock” for trying the black door. The rate of learning to access the correct door was measured.What they found in this simple experiment became a classic in the field of psychology and is known as the Yerkes-Dodson law. A small shock was not enough to help the mice learn faster, but a medium shock did, while a larger shock was too much and they retreated. The Yerkes-Dodson law, therefore, predicts that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal—but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases. The process is often illustrated graphically as a bell-shaped curve that increases and then decreases with higher levels of arousal. “Anxiety improves performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached. Beyond that point, performance deteriorates as higher levels of anxiety are attained.”[8]

From this, we can see that increasing challenge will improve performance, but too much challenge will decrease performance. Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this optimal state, “These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives.”[9]

But, sometimes, under higher levels of pressure, like in college finals, performance can diminish because of the threat response in the Social Brain. This is the drop in the bell curve. We’ve all been there. Too little pressure and we don’t revise, so the performance is low. Increase the pressure and we revise and performance increases. If we experience too much pressure in the exam hall, we can’t think straight and performance reduces. This is also known as the Goldilocks principle. The Goldilocks principlestates that something must fall within certain margins as opposed to reaching extremes. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Goldilocks doesn’t do extremes. So, the skill we need to master is to create this balance and enable sales populations (Goldilocks) to systematically and continually grow by keeping them challenged enough to be motivated, but not so much that we create a threat response.

Balance Challenge and Support

Sanford’s insight of creating a balance between challenge and support is a compelling one and provides a basis for us to create a growth culture in sales, where growth is not seen as a threat by the Social Brain, but as a way for salespeople to adapt to change and improve their skills. If we put Sanford’s theory into a four-box matrix with “Challenge” running vertically and “Support” running horizontally, four different sales performance cultures emerge:

Sanford matrix

Our aim, of course, is to move the sales culture to the top right, the growth mind-set culture that will enable our organization to grow. You’re probably wondering how we do that. We already know, from Dweck, that an individual can change their mind-set, and we’ve seen how we can enable this by helping them manage Social Brain thinking. In the following chapters we build on this to find out how we move multiple mind-sets to create a growth mind-set sales culture.

Avoiding the Traps

The equally important question you may not have considered is, “How do we move to a growth mind-set culture without falling into the traps of creating fear or entitlement cultures?” These are cultures where the levels of challenge and support are not balanced. Too much challenge and we create a culture of fear. Too little challenge and we create a culture of entitlement.

Sales culture trapsAs you will see in the Deal Hack Book, there are lessons we can learn to avoid falling into the traps of creating fear and entitlement sales cultures. We want to avoid these cultures because they produce the unintended consequences of reducing sales growth by creating fixed mind-set decision making and reducing the ability to adapt to change.

We want salespeople with growth mind-sets, which, collectively, we call a growth mind-set sales culture. We achieve a growth mind-set culture when we manage Social Brain thinking in the workflow through a balance of challenge and support. When levels of challenge and support are ineffective or imbalanced we get Social Brain thinking that creates non-growth sales cultures.

In the journey from fixed to growth mind-set cultures we need to be conscious of how we balance challenge and support. The unintended consequences of many transformation initiatives are that we can drive people into fear or entitlement cultures, both of which limit sales growth.

An entitled culture has an abundance of training and coaching, but low levels of challenge and follow-up to make sure these are being used effectively. This causes the accountability for development to shift from the individual toward the company. Social Brain thinking goes unchecked and is allowed to dominate the sales process.

A fear culture is a highly competitive, individualistic, and fear-driven environment. Individual attainment is prioritized and rewarded, with the concept of team being nothing more than a social concept. Social Brain thinking, again, goes unchecked and is allowed to dominate the sales process reducing sales effectiveness.

Deal Hacks help drive a balance of challenge and support. They reduce entitlement by increasing challenge. They reduce fear by adopting a healthier approach to challenge. Deal Hacks reduce Social Brain thinking in the sales process through effective feedback and form the backbone of a growth mind-set sales culture.


[1]John D. Foubert,Lessons Learned:How to Avoid the Biggest Mistakes Made by College Resident Assistants,2nd Ed.(Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge, 2014), 5.

[2]Steve Glowinkowski, It’s Behavior Stupid!:What Really Drives the Performance of Your Organization (Ecademy Press, 2009), 51.

[3]David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar, “Mental Fortitude Training: An Evidence-Based Approach to Developing Psychological Resilience for Sustained Success,” Journal of Sports Psychology in Action 7, no. 3 (2016), 141.

[4]Nevitt Sanford, Where Colleges Fail:A Study of the Student as a Person (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1968), 51.

[5]Nevitt Sanford, The American College:A Psychological and Social Interpretation of Higher Learning (New York: Wiley, 1962).

[6]Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, Make It Stick(Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2014), Kindle ed., 2.

[7]Carol Dweck, Mind-Set:Changing the Way You Think to Fulfill Your Potential, Updated Ed. (Boston: Little, Brown Book Group, 2006), Kindle ed., 219.

[8]Judith M. Bardwick, Danger in the Comfort Zone:From Boardroom to Mailroom— How to Break the Entitlement Habit That’s Killing American Business (New York:AMACOM, 1995), Kindle ed., 65.

[9]Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow:The Psychology of Happiness (London: Ebury Publishing, 2002), Kindle ed., 6.