Very often, managers who lead sales teams find themselves saying something like the following: “I have told them how to do X a hundred times, and it never seems to stick. I just don’t know what their problem is.” Or these managers may find themselves thinking, “Maybe I just hired the wrong person.”
At such a moment, it makes sense to ask: Is the problem really with “them?” Or could at least part of the problem be with us?
Typically, we find that when managers say (or think) this kind of thing about their team, there is a specific communication challenge for the manager to work on. This particular communication challenge can be described as a “telling loop.”
A telling loop works like this: I make a quick observation about something you’re doing that I don’t like or would do differently. Consciously or unconsciously, I then take on the role of parental figure in the relationship. Strategically, this might not actually be such a terrible choice … if I were to take on the role of the nurturing parent: the parent who listens, encourages, and supports his or her child. But that’s not what I do. I make the mistake of taking on the role of the parent who abruptly tells the child what he or she should or shouldn’t do, often in a disapproving tone. So instead of listening, supporting, or encouraging you in any meaningful or authentic way, I’ve assumed the role of the critical parent. I jump right in and dictate exactly what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and so on. You nod your head (or don’t) – but since I haven’t really taken the time to learn much about what’s actually going on in your world, you’re not particularly motivated to implement anything I share with you. So you don’t. And who can blame you? Most adults don’t like being told what to do.
You can probably guess what happens next. I notice you’re not following my instructions. I issue the instructions again. And the cycle repeats itself. That’s the telling loop.
But what if I were to take a different approach? What if I were to explain a different way of doing something … and anchor my explanation to a better way to achieve a personal goal? What if I slowed down? What if I observed what you were doing over an extended period, and took some notes? What if I then scheduled a one-on-one meeting with you, gave you strokes for what you were doing well, and also helped you outline what was most important for you to accomplish in your life? What if I helped you to clarify how coming to work each day supported that goal? What if, based on what I learned from that conversation, you and I then collaboratively set up a plan that got you closer to what you wanted to be, do, have, or experience … and also incorporated best practices that made sense to both of us? And what if, based on that ongoing conversation, you were inspired to take on the implementation of that plan as your personal priority? What if we then reviewed your progress together, so we could evaluate what was working and what wasn’t, and come up with adjustments that would lead to success?
That would be very different. That would be an ongoing conversation, where instead of just dispensing information, I seek out your insights and experiences on an ongoing basis … and inspire you to seek out mine. That’s not a telling loop. It’s a feedback loop.
For the feedback loop to work, I as the leader must stay out of critical parent mode. I need to spend all of my time with you as either a nurturing parent, or as a peer – someone who is willing to interact with you on an adult-to-adult basis, looking only at the facts of the situation. No judgments. No pulling rank. (And no childish responses, either.) Just a solid, respectful conversation based on either nurturing you … or sharing information with you that you decide may be helpful, based on what you’re trying to make happen in your life. I have to make the discussion about you … not about me.
This kind of conversation – the conversation that begins and sustains an ongoing feedback loop – is a far more effective approach to leadership than me simply cornering you and telling you where you need to improve. If I actually observe your actions and interact with you before I share guidance, you and I can begin to collaboratively discuss your challenges and together strategize about the best ways to overcome them. And once we do that, amazing things will start to happen.
For more on the feedback loop as a sales coaching strategy, check out the book, The Sales Coach’s Playbook.