If you've taken an introductory psychology course, you've probably heard about the bystander effect. This psychological quirk leads people in large groups to avoid helping victims — even in life-and-death situations like car accidents — because they feel no personal responsibility. In short, they assume someone else will take charge.
But the bystander effect doesn't only occur during emergencies. It's surprisingly prevalent in a much more mundane environment: the workplace. As teams grow, individual employees feel less personally responsible for collective results, sapping the entire team's productivity.
Unsurprisingly, larger teams complete more work overall, according to researchers at the University of Vermont. Most of that work, however, is done by a small number of high-performing team members. Others skate by, often unnoticed, assuming high performers will carry their weight. It doesn't take an MBA to realize that's a waste of talent and resources.
It Starts With Sales
Perhaps it's because I work most closely with salespeople (while we're talking about psychology, this is an availability heuristic kicking in), but I've noticed this phenomenon particularly among growing sales teams. As teams gain members, individual productivity often slumps.
The solution is twofold. It begins with company leaders holding managers accountable for team performance. Managers, in turn, must hold team members accountable for individual performance. Frankly, many sales teams are falling short. While 96% of world-class sales teams say managers are held accountable for team improvement, just 43% of average sales organizations feel the same.
Even more worrying is the fact that just 23% — not even one in four — salespeople are fully engaged with their work. That 23% of salespeople, I'm willing to bet, are the ones carrying the weight the others aren't.
So what's a manager to do? How can sales leaders create 'skin in the game' to re-engage the others and get results? As a finance guy turned entrepreneur turned sales executive, here's my advice:
1. Trade competition for cooperation.
Imagine you're an Olympic runner. You're competing in a race, but the leaders are far ahead. You may wonder why you even bother pushing yourself. There's no way you can catch up, so why try?
That same mentality applies to the workplace, and, of course, psychologists have a name for it: social loafing. It means that those who aren't top performers tend to get discouraged and give up when they feel behind. This causes them to contribute less to the project than if they were solely responsible or jointly responsible and leading the pack.
Michael Pryor, CEO of Trello, noticed this problem at his company, which led him to create a companywide ritual. At every meeting, he says a simple phrase: 'Don't do nothing.' This reminds all Trello team members to contribute however they can to solve a problem.
As Pryor did, the best way to combat social loafing is to create a collaborative, socially safe work environment. Team members — whether they're sales masters or just starting out — help the team the most when they support rather than compete with one another. When people feel safe, stress drops and fresh ideas emerge. They're not afraid to show vulnerabilities, allowing them to take risks and achieve their sales objectives.
What does that look like in practice? At Dun & Bradstreet, we offer transitional training into different roles to give workers personalized feedback and help them grow. We listen to sales calls and offer suggestions, combat burnout before it begins, and seek out what keeps salespeople interested and engaged. It's not about any individual being the best; it's about the team being its best.
2. Kick complacency to the curb.
We all know how easy it is to get comfortable. Top representatives are always pushing themselves to earn more, but most salespeople work just hard enough to support their lifestyle. After that, they sit back and relax.
Some call it complacency, but I believe it's the fear of being ostracized. If they make too much money, it could create distance between them and their friends. Don't we all want to feel like a part of the group?
It's the sales leader's role, then, to convey both safety and urgency to those comfortable employees. In fact, Gallup recently found that 70% of the differences between two teams' levels of engagement — teams within the same company — can be attributed to management.
To root out complacency and socioeconomic fears, managers should show how employees' goals intersect with company goals. For example, I once worked with a sales professional who was an average performer. I sat down with her to discuss her goals and learned that she was looking to buy her first home. The more sales she made, I reminded her, the closer she'd come to that goal. Her numbers, I'm proud to say, ticked steadily upward, and she was soon one of the team's strongest salespeople.
Your sales representatives already have personal goals. Align their aspirations with that of the entire company. Help them achieve those goals, and you'll create a powerful reason to contribute.
3. Turn managers into mentors.
Team members disengage when they feel like the company doesn't care about their personal and professional growth. Perhaps they've been passed over for leadership roles, or maybe they weren't given opportunities to work on special projects. If your company's culture doesn't prioritize professional development and constant improvement, your employees won't, either.
If sales professionals are to give their best, they need to feel like their managers genuinely care about them. The reality is, however, that just 49% of U.S. employees say they trust senior management.
How can managers close this trust gap? It begins by acting as career coaches. Set individual and collective goals for your teams; then, sit down at least quarterly with employees to discuss their progress. In our division, we encourage leaders to check in with team members often — but not so regularly as to pester them. Plus, our sales managers sit in the open so they're always available for questions.
While every team member's needs are unique, strive to connect at least monthly. Hold employees accountable, listen to their goals and struggles, and ask how you can help.
It's easy to look at a successful, growing sales force and assume everything is going well. But managers of top-performing teams look more closely: Is Tom burning out? Maybe Jane is hitting her sales goals — but could she aim higher?
Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet to shoot down disengagement. The best managers can do is to be mentors. Take time to talk to your people. Discuss their goals, provide coaching, and create a safe work environment.
Competition is easier to foster than collaboration, but it's not the way to long-term — and, more to the point, teamwide — sales success.