The peak of Mount Stupid, Sales Leadership and the Dunning-Kruger effect

Dunning-Kruger-Effect-300x238Is it possible for you as a sales leader to imagine a situation where there’s a sales rep who is less competent than he thinks he is? Or how about a customer decision-maker who is not up to the task, but has a self-perception of great expertise?

Unfortunately, neither scenario is all that unusual. It’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action. It’s the mass of relatively unskilled individuals who don’t recognize or even perceive the fact of their own incompetence. (Read more about The Peak of Mt. Stupid)

Are you really as smart as you think you are?

The sales rep with this “illness” is a disaster waiting to happen.

Who could be more arrogant than one with Little League skills who thinks he’s ready for Major League Baseball? A sales leader with one of these has some coaching to do. My personal favorite (admittedly “tough love”) way for this type of coaching is to ask said rep to conduct a 15 minute training session at the next sales meeting. Teach Subject X to everyone else. The rep will either study enough to gain the actual competence required or will get publicly skewered by the rest of the team.

Another way is to give the rep a book on the subject with a request to provide detailed feedback on the author’s way of presenting the material. Or if you’re more direct, with the statement, “You need to read and understand this stuff!” Do you have more coaching on coaching to suggest?

What about the customer with “Unknown Incompetence?”

Obviously, it’s a little more touchy. I like to ask said customer for recommendations on books, articles, web sites… I can use to learn more about Subject X. Then I can bring a copy of the same book, article, whatever back to that customer and ask for an opinion about one or more specific topics. “This author says X, and I always thought Y. You have a lot of expertise, can you help me sort this out?” Feels a bit like coaching the customer doesn’t it?

Don’t underestimate your own ability!

There’s also a flip-side to Dunning-Kruger. Truly competent individuals regularly assume that others can perform a task as easily as they can. Can you imagine a sales manager who hires a new rep, gives the poor newbie a product catalog, a cell phone, a PC and an expense account and then moves on with the day? Assuming the new kid knows what to do, when and how? I know, that never happens…

What happens when we wrongly assume our customer has the requisite knowledge and skills?

Yikes! Speaking of disasters. Projects fail. Project are late. Projects are over budget. Our customer champions get fired. We get unceremoniously thrown out.

My personal favorite way to address this version of the Dunning-Druger Effect is developing and deploying Sales Process Media. The truly competent at Subject X can write it all down. (…and/or make a video and/or audio recording.) They then are able to verbally explain as much as they can, concluded with “here’s documentation of everything you and your team need to know.”

Of course there are many ways to effectively compensate for the Dunning-Druger Effect. The key thing is recognize both of its aspects when they present themselves.

Success without relationships?

I’ve gotten quite a bit a feedback regarding my recent post The Secret To Success. The most common criticism has been that I ignored the “People Side.” Fair enough! A few thoughts on that note…

Building-RelationshipsPersonally, I have ZERO disagreement that the people side of success is critical. That said, I know and have worked with quite a few universally disliked – even hated – tyrants who consider themselves highly “successful.” Who am I to tell them they’re not?

I can and do feel sorry for them, because they’re missing out on what I consider the best part. But if they’re successful in their own minds, good for them!

Whether we agree with the “I’d rather be feared than loved” strategy or not, there’s an extremely long list of business and political leaders that took that route. Consider Steve Jobs, Harold Geneen, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin…

I believe that the definition of “success” is an extremely individual thing. Relationships may or may not be part of a given individual’s definition. For me, if a client doesn’t also become a friend over time, the engagement can never be completely successful – for me. The client who doesn’t care about the people side could well consider the exact same project a great success.

In the context of the model, and since relationships are important to me, I work hard at establishing and developing relationships, I study relationship-building strategies and tactics and as a result feel like I’m lucky enough to have a whole bunch of client/employee/colleague-friends.

Make sense?


P. T. Barnum
P. T. Barnum

Before I make the serious point (which by the way has to do with your reputation), I’ve got to share the chuckle that led me to write this…

P. T. Barnum’s executive assistant once asked the master showman that if a sucker was born only once every minute, where did all the rest of them come from?

Well OK, it struck me as funny. Then I started thinking. P. T. Barnum? I always thought it was W. C. Fields that said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” So I did what everybody does when they get curious about some bit of information. I Googled it.

(SIDE NOTE: Just like everybody that gets curious about something; anything – including how to solve a problem that your products and services can solve. Which is why, to add some shameless self-promotion, you really need to learn as much as you can about Sales Process Media.)

Anyway, I Googled “There’s a sucker born every minute” and read this. Turns out a guy named David Hannum, who basically hated Barnum’s guts, was the real source of the comment. Apparently, Hannum went to great lengths to get the world to believe that Barnum – legitimately a great salesman – held his customers, the source of his wealth, in disgusted disdain.

Obviously not a great reputation for a salesman to have.

So it got me to thinking about how I and my company’s services might be perceived. I don’t think I have (too many) enemies, so outright slurs aren’t really a concern. But does the general world of Sales Managers really have a clue what Sales Process Engineering or Sales Process Media is all about? Or do they have some terribly skewed perception? Or no perception at all?

Does the general world of your decision-makers really have a clue about the value your products and services deliver? Or do they have some terribly skewed perception? Or worse – no perception at all?

I’m just askin’…. Think about it!