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How Managers Can Go Beyond the Carrot and the Stick to Motivate Reps

Cabrera_newToday's blog post is by Christopher Cabrera, CEO of Xactly Corporation, the industry leader in sales compensation automation.


Many sales leaders hope to drive performance by enticing their reps with one tempting financial incentive after another. And that makes a certain amount of sense: what salesperson wouldn’t work just a little bit harder to earn a nice bonus? Seems like a no-brainer.

In fact, the link between money and performance is more tenuous than you might expect. One expert whose work I like in this area is author and journalist Daniel Pink, who has written a number of books on shifting trends in the way we work. His book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us uses 50 years of behavioral science to overturn the conventional wisdom about human motivation. Based on his findings, he asserts that “when cash incentives are offered in this type of problem solving, it dulls the brain and blocks creativity.”

That’s not to say money isn’t a motivator at all. Of course it is. People who feel they’re underpaid aren’t likely to strive to do their best. But when they’re paid enough that money isn’t an issue, Pink says, it clears the way for them to focus on their work.

The carrot-and-stick approach to motivation fails to recognize the following key motivators for salespeople.

1. Autonomy

Autonomy is the desire to be self-directed, to have enough freedom to try something new every so often. Pink found that companies that wanted to spur innovation got better results when they gave employees freedom to do what they wanted rather than offered an innovation bonus.

One notable example of autonomy at work is Australian software company Atlassian’s “ShipIt Days” ­– hack-a-thons that give employees 24 hours to deliver a project of their choosing.

Sales leadership tip: In sales, autonomy might mean letting reps set open-ended goals after they’ve hit the company quota. Instead of capping commission, let sales reps achieve (and earn) as much as they want. Give reps the opportunity to prove their way into increased sales responsibilities.

2. Mastery

Mastery, of course, is simply the drive to get better at whatever it is you like to do, whether it’s playing a musical instrument, writing code, or selling widgets. Tap in to sales reps’ competitive nature. If you want them to master a particular skill, hold a contest or offer a SPIF.

Hand-in-hand with mastery comes the natural desire for recognition, which is too often overlooked. In a 2011 survey, Globoforce found that 69 percent of employees would work harder if they were recognized more.

Sales leadership tip: Mastery is easy enough to orchestrate for a sales team. Recognize accomplishments on public leaderboards, via email blasts or social/mobile technology, or at weekly team meetings.

3. Purpose

Purposecan be lofty, as in working to make the world a better place, or as down-to-earth as a salesperson’s wanting more from a job than just the next commission check. Sales leaders can lay out a career path that rewards reps for their successes, moving them from inbound to outbound calls, for example, or from SMBs to larger and larger firms.

Sales leadership tip: Successful salespeople might aspire to be seen as experts in their vertical or become coaches to less-experienced colleagues.

For more on motivating your sales team with more than just dollar signs, see my SlideShare presentation, “Insights on Motivation.”

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