Employee creativity is a driving factor of organizational success, and thus an important consideration for anyone who wants to increase sales. The goal of this post will be to give you a quick overview on how actively managing creativity within your sales team can help increase sales. Specifically, we will look at how to:
- Make creativity a value,
- Provide your team with the environment to be creative, and
- Capitalize on everyone’s creativity.
As always this post is based on over thirty papers on creativity, leader member exchange, and transformational leadership drawn from the fields of cognitive and organizational psychology.
What is creativity and why do you want it in your team?
Creativity is typically defined as an employee’s ability to generate novel responses that are useful in dealing with the tasks at hand. Creative responses can vary wildly depending on the situation. Some can be elaborate, but some can even be really straightforward. Take for instance the famous story about the toothpaste manufacturer that wanted to increase sales, where the amazing solution was to increase the diameter of the hole of the tube, making it so that more toothpaste would come out after each use. Whether elaborate or straight forward, the goal of creative responses will be to refine existing processes and procedures, or discovering alternative procedures that are more effective, in order to increase productivity and/or better meet customer needs.
In terms of sales, creative agents are able to develop new ideas to satisfy customer needs, generate alternatives for novel customer problems, and evaluate multiple options that will ultimately increase sales. For instance, a seller who thinks more divergently about their products will be able to find new ways to recommend their products to a large number of customers. A famous example of finding new uses for products lies in the origin of post-it notes, where a chemist at 3M tried to create a very strong adhesive. The experiment failed and a weak adhesive was created instead. A colleague then used this idea to stick notes on paper without harming the paper, and the rest is history.
Of course, looking at famous examples makes it look much easier than it actually is, but there are some things that we can do that will help promote creativity in your team. Although some people are just more predisposed to creativity than others, having a creative team is not solely dependent on your employees themselves. Rather, before we can build a creative team and increase sales, we first need to ensure that we create an environment in which creativity can flourish.
Make creativity a value
First and foremost, if we want our salesforce to be more creative, we need to actively communicate these expectations with the team. One of the best ways to do this is to lead by example. Transformational leadership tells us that charismatic and inspirational leaders can inspire their employees’ creativity and innovation by means of intellectual stimulation.
One way to do this is to actively set up challenges for your employees to solve. For instance, leadership could set up a weekly meeting (or even lunch break, to make it less formal), in which the sales team discusses a difficult client or account, or analyzes a part of the sales workflow that you feel may be in need of improvement.
The goal of these meetings is to implant the idea that you as a manager value novel approaches to difficult cases, and you want your employees to actively think about ways to improve the way they are currently working. Promote creative ideas by highlighting new approaches that your employees may have come up with, or cases that you have read about online. This will help your employees have a frame of reference of what is possible.
Provide your team with the environment to be creative
Being creative oftentimes requires challenging the status quo, which means taking risks that may or may not pay off in the long run. It is therefore important that if we want to increase sales through creativity, we need to create an environment that allows for productive failure. This means that as a manager you should support your employees, showing empathy and consideration to help them overcome the fear of challenging the status quo.
One way to create a feeling of safety is to de-stigmatize failure. While failure is never a desired outcome, it is also something that happens to all of us, be it big or small. What is important is that we learn from it and don’t repeat the same mistakes.
One way to make failure more acceptable, or easier to talk about, is by having an informal “f***-up award” night, where the biggest or funniest failure receives a prize. As a leader, be sure to acknowledge times when you have failed, and when possible what you learned from the experience. Making failure more acceptable, will ensure a greater feeling of safety, which in turn will benefit more creative and innovative behavior.
Another important aspect of a creative environment is the feeling of trust. Studies show that rigid procedures, constant surveillance, and a lack of resources to experiment have a negative effect on an employee’s creativity. In short, when you communicate to your employees–directly or indirectly–that you don’t trust them, they tend to be unwilling to risk losing what little trust they have. Creativity will only have an impact on sales volume when salespersons are trusted to take risks and experiment with clients who have a larger spending budget.
Of course, not every company has the financial capacity to let their employees try high risk approaches. But as a leader you can instill feelings of trust even when monetary resources are limited. Instill trust by actively listening to your employees’ ideas and providing them with developmental feedback (more on this later).
Don’t just shut ideas down when the resources are not available, but set up a meeting with your employee and try to look for opportunities in the future in which their idea can be implemented. It is important to be consistent, and keep the ideas tangible, so always try to setup and adhere to a timeframe.
Capitalize on everyone’s creativity (even the people you don’t care much for)
A last but important part of boosting creativity is ensuring that you capitalize on everyone’s creativity–not just the people you typically look to as your top performers or favorite employees. You have the best chance to increase sales when all team members contribute at their creative peak.
To do this, you’ll need to be aware of your own biases. As humans, we all have people who we really like and hold close (the in-group), and people who we like less or seem different from us (the out-group). Managers are no different. Leader-member exchange (LMX) theory tells us that leaders (i.e., managers) form relationships of varying quality with different subordinates (i.e., employees). High-quality relationships are typically characterized by trust, liking and respect. Low-quality work relationships tend to be mostly formal in nature, and are typically limited to basic job requirements.
While perfectly natural, this can have detrimental effects on your department’s level of creativity.
Managers are more likely to provide high-quality LMX employees with valuable resources that can be both intangible (e.g., friendship and support) and tangible (e.g. protection from unfair practices, special assignments, information and feedback). In return, employees repay this support the leader in the form of loyalty, extra effort, increased performance and other behaviours perceived to be beneﬁcial for the leader.
The employee-manager relationship, therefore, influences employee creativity. Salespersons who have a good relationship with their manager (the in-group) will more likely feel trusted and have more access to resources that provide them with the opportunity to utilize their creativity to increase sales. Conversely, salespersons with more distant (out-group) relationships with their managers will tend to feel less trust and have less access to the resources needed to be creative. This distinction can lead to small, but profound differences that impact the development of creativity in the long run.
This can be particularly harmful when you consider research finding that people unlike you may be more likely to have perspectives and ideas that are different from yours. Indeed, diverse teams are more likely to develop creative solutions, even when the process of working with out-group members is challenging. Diverse teams, made of both in-group and out-group members, appear to improve creativity because employees share more information and elaborate more.
Hence, if we want our employees to be able to develop and share their creative abilities, it is important to set aside your preferences. While this may be difficult, as we are not always 100% aware of our behavior, there are some good takeaways that may help combat these biases.
1. Stay receptive to everybody’s ideas
Being receptive to ideas means that as a manager you should be willing to listen to, discuss, and help develop ideas from all of your employees.
One idea is to set up a weekly meeting slot in which employees can sign up to pitch new ideas. It is important to note that being receptive goes beyond just giving feedback, but entails actual steps that help employees revise or further develop their ideas. Help your employees in making their ideas SMART.
As we’ve discussed in prior blog posts, SMART goals increase the chance that you will actually achieve your desired outcome. Specifically, help them to:
- Specify what problem/challenge/inefficiency they want to target
- Create measurable markers by which they can gauge success
- Set achievable next steps that will help them achieve their goal
- Check whether the idea is relevant to the problem/challenge/inefficiency, and guide them to what we know has been done/tried before.
- Set up a specific time plan by which each necessary step will be completed
Try to keep a tab on where skills lie in your team, so that you can connect employees to share their knowledge and skills, and learn from each other.
2. Support the implementation of ideas
The quality of the idea and other objective considerations should dictate how much management supports implementing a creative idea. Yet evidence suggests that managers tend to restrict ideas of employees with whom they have low-quality relationships to smaller scale projects that involve smaller sales possibilities.
A way to test for and try to cut out this potential bias is to get a second opinion on creative proposals. Pitch your employee’s idea to somebody you trust and get their feedback on it. (You could even set up a “creativity committee” made of employees or colleagues to review anonymous ideas.) See if it matches up with your own evaluation, or whether you should consider supporting the employee to develop their idea for a higher profile client.
3. Provide resources to your entire team
A last pitfall lies in the resources that are made available to the team. Resources in this sense pertain to opportunities, autonomy, and access to the manager’s time and information. Data suggests that managers tend to invest their resources into the employees they favour the most. Though resources are limited, it may still be a good idea to spread them around more equally. In the long run it is usually better to have multiple good employees versus one exceptional one.
Depending on the size of your team, it may be a worthwhile investment to organize a monthly lunch or coffee with each of your employees to discuss work-related issues. When it comes to more limited resources, such as conferences that can be attended or important projects that must be assigned, consider providing opportunities based on a rotation system. Such a rotation can boost feelings of support and trust and ensure all employees are provided some opportunity to show their skills and increase sales.
Recap on increase sales by actively managing creativity
Creativity can increase sales. Creativity and innovation help salespeople identify prospects, respond to customer demands, and improve processes. To boost your team’s creativity:
- Start making creativity a value: Convey the need for creativity and novel ideas by stimulating your employees with challenges and problems that you encounter during your day-to-day work.
- Provide your team with the environment to be creative by de-stigmatizing failure, and creating a trusting and safe environment.
- Capitalize on everyone’s creativity (even the people you don’t much care for). Be receptive and support the implementation to everyone’s ideas. Spread resources evenly across the team to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to develop their creativity.
As always, it is important to note that growing creativity takes time, and you won’t increase sales the moment you start implementing these tips, so be patient, and find the perfect balance between managing expenses and creating development opportunities for your employees.