Is Your Personality Fixed Or Can You Change Who You Are?

And why are we talking about this on a sales and marketing consulting blog? The podcast Invisiblia, produced by NPR, is about the unseen forces that control human behavior – our ideas, beliefs, assumptions. The above episode raises a number of questions that I think are also relevant to sales management and the development of sales people such as –

• How important is correct framing in determining performance?
• Are the behaviours of your sales people fixed or can they be altered?
• How do Sales Manager’s expectations effect the performance of their sales staff?

The Importance of Correct Framing
(The Mirage Of Personality Traits)

The program discusses the work of Psychologist Mischel who noted that studies on personality were all looking for consistency in personality across situations but none of them were finding it. As a result, Mischel wrote a book called Personality and Assessment in 1968 that challenged basic ideas about the role personality plays in our lives. He concluded that the idea that our personality traits are consistent is a mirage.

This idea was hard for people to wrap their heads around and so he tried to make it stick but never did thanks to his famous marshmallow test. Mischel would give a small child a marshmallow, tell them they could eat it now or if they could wait for a few minutes, they’d get two. More often than not he left the room and the kids gobbled it up.

But sometimes Mischel told the child ahead of time they could pretend the marshmallow wasn’t there and by changing the representation, most of the children were able to delay gratification when they reframed their interpretations of the situation in front of them.

The point of the marshmallow test was to show how flexible people are and how easily they changed if they reinterpret the way they frame the situation around them. Instead it was decided that those traits were fixed and their self-control at age 4 determined their success throughout life. If they could refrain from eating the marshmallow, they would be happier, have better relationships, do better at school and at work.

As the podcast says, this drives Walter Mischel crazy.

So how does this relate to sales training?

The notion of changing the representation to allow people to reframe their interpretations of the situation in front of them is a cornerstone of sales training and coaching. Done well it can enable sales people to be invigorated and effective in achieving their goals. Done poorly it can enable sales people to justify poor performance.

Make a note to consider how you frame your next sales meeting or interaction with a member of your sales team. By changing the representation about the tasks ahead you have the opportunity to change the outcome of individuals and teams but it’s not always easy. Just as an aside, an outsourced Sales Manager can help with this process.

Are the behaviours of your sales consultants fixed or can they be altered?
(Since the circumstances are consistent, our behavior is, too?)

The program then talks about the work of Lee Ross, a psychologist at Stanford University. He read Mischel’s book and thinks we see consistency in human behavior, but we’re getting the reason for it wrong. Most of us are usually living in situations that are pretty much the same from day to day, and since the circumstances are consistent, our behavior is, too.

Ross says people are predictable because we see them in situations where their behavior is constrained by that situation and the roles they’re occupying and the relationships they have with us. This goes some way to explain the unremarkable sales person who shines at the sales conference or when the situation changes.

This presents a compelling case for providing professional development opportunities for sales people and teams that allow a change in circumstances which is critical if we want to see a change in behavior. This doesn’t need to be drastic and expensive either but simple variations can have tremendous results.

So coming back to sales training, the following are some simple ways to do this –
• Provide opportunities for sale people to accompany other members of the sales and marketing team on calls to improve relevant skills. This provides an opportunity for strong performers to shine, helps develop other members of the team and strengthen bonds in the team.
• Develop in field coaching by senior management or an outsourced sales manager who can conduct sales calls to educate and work with individuals to help improve performance
• Provide opportunities that allow sales people to be exposed to different customer / prospect types – size, buying process, geography
• Vary the format of sales and marketing meetings – by location if possible or by format – environment can be a simple but effective way to set the tone of a meeting
• Enables sales people to have responsibility for different areas of sales meetings – competitor analysis, market knowledge, research
• Run in house product/ service competitions to test product knowledge and allow individuals to shine
• Change the format of your interactions – include opportunities for both one on one and group interactions

The key takeaway here is to offer your sales team a variety of experiences so they do not to remain in predictable roles and as a result, predictable patterns of behaviour.

How do manager’s expectations effect the performance of their sales staff?
(The Pygmalion Effect)

The program then discusses the the Pygmalion Effect where Harvard researcher and psychologist, Bob Rosenthal, conducted a study in which subjects had to coach a rat through a maze. Half of the group were told they received intelligent rats bred with maze solving skills while the other half were told their rats were ‘dumb’. No prizes for guessing the “intelligent” rats performed better.

A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance. Both effects are forms of self fulfilling prophecy.

All Sales managers need to be aware of expectations and their potential effects on the performance of their sales team. The goal is to drive the best performance and this starts with high expectations even if this can be difficult.

Write down the name of all the people in your sales team. Then write next to it how you would rate their intelligence. Then rate their actual performance. Now go back to the ones you rated as average or below and circle them. These are the people you need to work with as your low expectations could be a key factor in their performance. Of course you may have good reason for thinking the way you do but the role of sales managers is to bring out the best in people and even small, incremental change can be worth it. High performance starts with high expectations. Higher performance starts with higher expectations.


• Provide positive opportunities that allow people to reframe their interpretations of the situation in front of them
• Provide professional development opportunities that allow a change in circumstances to enable changes in behaviour
• Be vigilant and aware of your expectations and their potential effects on performance

To listen to the Invisblia podcast – http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia

If you’re in Melbourne and wishing to discuss how to grow your sales and marketing channels, don’t hesitate to reach out.