Toxic sales culture? Here’s what happened and what to do about it

by Steli Efti

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Arguments. Politics. Tension.

Your salespeople hate each other. They hate their workplace. They want to see everyone else fail.

Perhaps you say to yourself, “Maybe things will get better.”

No.

If the culture in your sales team has turned toxic, the worst thing you can do is hope for things to resolve themselves.

Let’s talk about how you end up with a toxic sales culture and what you can do to avoid it.

The two reasons your sales team has a toxic culture

If the culture in your sales team has turned toxic, the explanation lies in two main reasons:

  1. You hire the wrong people
  2. You incentivize the wrong behaviors

First, let’s take a look at the personality types in your sales team.

The four archetypes of your sales team

Your sales team consists of four basic archetypes. Any member of your team will fit into these categories based on how you reward and incentivize them.

  1. Willing and capable
  2. Unwilling and capable
  3. Willing and incapable
  4. Unwilling and incapable

Willing and capable

These people have the skills necessary. But they’re not just able to do the job, they're also someone other people want to be around because they have a great energy and attitude.

They want to grow, get better, and they want to bring everyone along with them. Ultimately, they want to create value and they want other team members to succeed.

Unwilling and capable

These are the people that have the right skills, but they don’t have the right attitude. They are often arrogant, selfish and egotistical.

Managers often turn a blind eye to their attitude and arrogance because they generate a lot of revenue.

Willing and incapable

These people are hungry and ready to hustle. They have a great attitude and they are ready to learn. But they’re not ready or experienced enough to do the job. Maybe not yet. Maybe never.

These are the people that you’ll want to give a chance. A lot of people will empathize with them because a lot of people have been in their shoes.

Unwilling and incapable

These people don’t have the right attitude, nor do they have the right skills. They bring no value to your team, so don’t even bother with them.

Out of these four personality types, two will create a toxic culture in your sales team: the unwilling and capable, and the willing and incapable.

Let’s take a look at why.

Unwilling but capable—Great salesperson, bad team player

This person is probably going to perform really well. That’s what makes it difficult to fire them. You want to hold on to the results they’re generating and not do anything that could threaten that.

This means that when you approach them about changing something, you’re coming from a position of weakness. You know that you don’t want to let them go. So do they. And they’ll take full advantage of this.

Playing by different rules

Because they’re so successful, they think they can play by different rules. They’re going to break the company rules. They’re going to break the team rules. And they’re going to do this in front of everyone and get away with it because they’re so good at their job.

This is going to have a negative impact on everyone else on the team. People that are capable of performing on the same level will want to be just as big of an asshole as that person. Why? They think they’ve earned the same privilege.

It sets a standard that everyone else that can, wants to follow.

The great divide

Instead of helping everyone succeed and setting a good example, top performers will look down on the rest.

Those that can’t be on the same level will feel left behind and maybe even bullied. This will create rifts between team members and factions may form.

The message you’re sending is that this behavior is okay and it’s the type of behavior that gets rewarded. What ultimately happens is that you’ll get a lot more of that behavior.

Can they change?

Can you change a person that’s unwilling and capable? Should you hire them and try to change their ways? The answer is no.

Why? Changing someone’s attitude is way too big of a task to take on. You have a business to run, and unless you’re in the business of changing human behavior—it’s not worth it.

Now, let’s take a look at the second personality type and how they contribute to a toxic sales culture.

Willing but incapable: Potential value, potential failure

There’s an argument to be made that it’s worth investing in this person and benefit from the growth they’ll experience. But there’s no guarantee that you’ll see a return on that investment.

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An unpolished diamond

This person is potentially an undervalued asset in the market. One that you could develop into an incredibly valuable part of your team. So it’s not necessarily a bad idea to hire this type of person, but you’d have to be incredibly disciplined about it.

You’re going to invest a lot of resources into helping this person grow and succeed. It’ll require time, training and patience. They might fail. And they might keep failing.

Low standards, low morale

If someone else on the team is working hard and generating a lot of value, they’ll become incredibly demoralized and demotivated by seeing this. It’ll create a form of resentment towards the people that can just sit there and get away with doing nothing.

The message you send out to the entire team is that low performance is acceptable. This will bring down the overall performance of the team because low performance is the standard.

The best salespeople will want to work with people that are better than them. If they’re not placed in that kind of environment—they will leave for something better.

This structure will destroy your sales team.

Rewarding the wrong behavior

The way you reward people will most likely be the reason behind a toxic sales culture. Based on how your compensation structure is designed, it will encourage and discourage certain behavior.

Below are two compensation structures that are guaranteed to set your team up for failure.

The ABC approach

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If you design a compensation structure that only rewards the dollar amount your reps bring in, you’ll get reps that contact the wrong types of leads and lie to prospects.

This behavior will hurt not only your brand but also your business, because your reps are going to go for any deal, by any means.

Working 9-5

If you pay people the same base salary, no matter what type of deal they close, $5 million or $5,000—people will work as little as humanly possible. They will do the bare minimum to earn their salary and nothing beyond that.

Soon, reps that are capable of much more will start looking for jobs that reward their talent.

Find the right compensation structure

You need to have a compensation structure in place that creates long-term value and helps everyone be successful.

Think about it in two ways.

Reward individual performance

You need to think about the individual first. If they generate a ton of revenue for your business, they should be compensated accordingly.

In order for them to bring in the best business possible, reward them in different stages throughout the sales process.

Reward overall team performance

Set a goal for the team to hit together. If they do, everyone gets a bonus.

This means they’ll be incentivized to perform as an individual as well as contribute to the overall team performance. Do they want to be the sole reason for a company-wide bonus not being paid out? Probably not.

The structure is designed for your salespeople to succeed on an individual level and to succeed collectively as a team.

Avoiding a toxic sales culture

It’s your responsibility as the sales manager to make sure your culture is healthy and optimized for success.

Pay attention to salespeople that have a negative impact on your culture. Ultimately, they will have a negative impact on your bottom line. Harvard Business Review noted that “Avoiding a toxic employee can save a company more than twice as much as bringing on a star performer.”

If you think you have a toxic sales team or are on your way to developing a toxic sales culture, take a look at the type of personas your team consists of. Then take a look at how you reward behavior within your team.

After doing this, you’ll quickly be able to see where things went wrong and what needs to be done to get things back on track.

Remember, happy salespeople are successful salespeople.

Want to make your salespeople even more successful? Try Close.io for free for 14 days, increase productivity and help your team crush their quotas.

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