You probably recognize it. You’re stressed…really stressed. Perhaps everything seems to be going wrong, or you’re just overwhelmed by everything you need to do. It feels like you’re in a downward spiral and there is no way out. But hang on, there is a way you can break out of this vicious cycle: broaden your vision and build resources to fight sales job stress.
The broaden and build model states that positive emotions broaden people’s modes of thinking and, in turn, build their personal and social resources. Positive emotion can literally broaden your vision–allowing you to see the big picture and problem solve in new ways. This enhances positive selling behaviours such as learning orientation, adaptive selling and sales creativity. Positive emotions also reduce negative states such as anxiety, deviant behaviour, and burnout.
But how can you use insights from this model on the workfloor?
In this post we will focus on specific tactics that are derived from the broaden and build theory and explore ways to cultivate positive emotions in yourself and your team. Specifically we will focus on three lessons to reduce sales job stress:
- Stop the downward spiral
- Encourage meaning making, and
- Use positive reinforcement
As always, our researchers have reviewed the best research in psychology, organizational behavior, cognitive science, and neuroscience to develop our strategies and tips to help you and your employees.
What is the broaden and build theory?
What it is. The broaden-and-build theory is rooted in positive psychology, which seeks to understand what contributes to people’s flourishing. These positive aspects include contentment, flow, forgiveness, gratitude, happiness, hope, joy, optimism, perseverance, resilience, tolerance, satisfaction, and self-efficacy.
Specifically, the broaden-and-build theory suggests that individuals have the capacity to
- broaden or expand their thought-action repertoires and
- build lasting personal resources.
Essentially positive emotions (such as happiness, interest, and anticipation) broaden awareness and encourage novel, exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this broadened vision builds useful skills and psychological resources (such as confidence and social connections) and reduces sales job stress.
Why does it work? Negative emotions tend to narrow our mindset. This can be beneficial in acute situations that threaten survival. For example, imagine you are in the woods and stumble upon an angry bear. In such a life-threatening situation, a narrowed thought-action repertoire promotes quick and decisive action for direct and immediate benefit (e.g., attack, flee).
Positive emotions, on the other hand, tend to broaden our mindsets. A broadened mindset is beneficial in other ways, and can be especially beneficial over the long term. For example:
- Joy creates the urge to play, push the limits, and be creative, not only in social and physical behavior, but also in intellectual and artistic behavior.
- Interest creates the urge to explore, take in new information and experiences, and expand the self in the process.
- Pride (which follows from personal achievements), creates urges to share news of the achievement with others, as well as to envision even greater achievements in the future.
These various tendencies—to play, to explore, to envision future achievements—each represent ways that positive emotions broaden habitual modes of thinking or acting. These positive emotions are also linked to increased dopamine levels in the brain, and this broadened mindsets also carries indirect and long-term adaptive benefits by building personal resources and reducing sales job stress.
Stop the downward spiral
The first step to tackle intense sales job stress and cultivate positive emotions is to stop the downward spiral. The spiral occurs when you are stuck in a series of negative thoughts that feeds back into itself, causing the situation to get progressively worse. Such prolonged stress isn’t just bad for your physical health, as noted above it also narrows our attention and makes it harder to figure out how to problem solve and get out of it.
So how can you help yourself or your team get out of the rut, and into an upward spiral? Here are some tips if you want to break out the vicious cycle and start building a positive mindset:
Detect (early) warning signs. Be aware of sales job stress, both for yourself and for your employees. Recognizing and acknowledging stress is the first step to manage it. Unfortunately some signs can look like laziness or lack of care, when they really signal the opposite. Signs include:
- lowered productivity,
- health issues (e.g., insomnia, headaches, low energy), and
- behavioral change (e.g., irritability, nail-biting, being rushed all the time). Even increased use of alcohol and hunger for sweets, fried and/or fast foods could be an early warning sign.
Encourage breaks. When someone is overstressed, it is important to give them some time to take a step back and recuperate. A mandatory “day off” for anyone you know having a tough time might do the trick. But you could also encourage flexible scheduling that allows all employees to invest in their mental health (e.g., taking an exercise class during lunch time or attending medical appointments as needed).
A monthly, organization-wide wellness afternoon or rules like “no email after 5pm” may also signal that management takes well-being seriously and provides employees with time and space to relax.
Share mental health resources. When you suspect that someone might be overwhelmed with sales job stress, actively provide them with resources to deal with this. (Or if you yourself are stressed, use your resources!) This could include sharing information about professional counseling, support groups, or self-led wellness programs and apps like PsychologyCompass.
Acknowledge normalcy. Job stress is part of the sales job, and you and your team are not alone in experiencing it. A study from Everest College showed that 83% of the US workers suffer from work-related stress.
It might be a slight relief knowing that ‘a bit’ of stress can actually be beneficial. The activation theory suggests that mental arousal is necessary for effective functioning, in a sense that we need a certain level of activation (i.e. some degree of stress) to be motivated to actually achieve goals. However, it is harmful when sustained, which is referred to as allostatic load — the cumulative burden of chronic stress.
Consider destigmatizing sales job stress and the use of mental health resources by noting that stress and anxiety are common. If relevant, you can even share your own experiences and which resources you found helpful.
Broaden your vision with meaning making
In addition to addressing acute stress as it arises, employers and employees should take steps to foster positivity over the long haul. One of the best ways to do this is to encourage meaning making.
What is meaning making? Typically, emotions follow from appraisals of personal meaning. For example, imagine that your boss tells you you “did ok” at a presentation. The comment alone doesn’t cause an emotion, but instead what matters is your interpretation of what it means to you.
This comment could make you feel positive–if, say, your boss is usually super critical or you worried you failed. Or it could make you feel negative–if, say, you had hoped to do exceptionally well and now worry that you aren’t as good of a communicator as you thought. (Or it might cause no emotions if you didn’t care much about the presentation or your boss’ opinion.)
As such, as a leader, one of the most fruitful avenues for cultivating positive emotions and broadening your team’s vision is to help others find positive meaning in their daily work. Positive meaning in the workplace can be drawn from experiences of competence, achievement, involvement, significance, and social connection.
Managers might promote such experiences with careful consideration of their organization’s practices, ranging from incentive and reward structures, to group size, to methods of communication. In what follows we will discuss some tactics in further detail.
Encourage employee involvement. Employee involvement refers to the direct participation of workers in planning and improvement by contributing their own ideas and expertise. By having a voice in decisions and actions that affect their job and the whole organization, employees feel included. Besides being a positive emotion in itself, involved employees also feel a greater sense of commitment to the company, which motivates them to give their best effort. Also, managers can benefit from input from different levels of the hierarchy to make decisions.
But how do you encourage involvement to reduce sales job stress?
Job crafting. One way to do this is by stimulating job crafting. In essence, job crafting is about employees changing aspects of their job to better suit themselves. During this process, employees make fundamental choices about what to do, how to do it, and whom to incorporate. As a consequence, they make the job more meaningful to them, creating a work environment in which they feel that their skills are being valued. Job crafting is discussed in more detail in this post.
Intranet. Another way to encourage involvement is by focusing on the company’s intranet. Instead of limiting the intranet to top-down documentation, these digital work spaces should be the place where everyone can go to access information, collaborate, and forge social connections. This space is especially relevant for remote workers. The intranet can be a useful tool for employees to stay connected and for implementing strategy.
So, to encourage employee involvement, focus on bottom-up, interactive social intranets, which are focused on employee’s needs and contributions. A few tips for making this happen:
- Make sure employees of all levels have access and explain to them how they can use it (e.g., by organizing workshops)
- Get the leadership team to model active involvement. Remember: leaders are seen as role models and employees will look at them for direction and desired behavior.
- Create robust privacy policies: it is very important that employees feel safe and secure while sharing information.
- Make sure your intranet has reliable, relevant and up to date information
- Also include some fun into the digital workspace. You can include games and challenges that get employees involved and interacting, even when working remotely. You could think about a company music play- or podcast- list, blog posts where employees can share diverse ideas and opinions, or other playful games.
Connection to the top. In addition, it is important to give employees a line to the people at the top. By doing this, you encourage transparency and a rapid flow of open communication and ideas between employees and executives. Of course, leadership may not be able to meet one-on-one with everyone, but they can be transparent and welcome employee feedback.
Make transparent what executives are doing (for example through blogs, social media, or the company’s intranet) and invite employees to provide input. Make sure that leaders also respond to this so employees know that someone is listening.
Increase feelings of significance. In general, people love recognition. Although this is widely known, instead of giving employees a meaningful sense of appreciation, managers most often see this as just another box to check. However, small moments of recognition can produce positive emotions that can compound and lead to something greater in the long run. This can foster feelings of pride, which may subsequently fuel cognitions about what a person can accomplish next, triggering goal-setting behavior.
A study in Harverd Business Review stated that there is a gap between how much managers appreciated employees, and how much they felt appreciated. Therefore there seems to be an illusion of transparency, where managers incorrectly assume employees know how they felt about them. It is therefore important to make appreciation easy and contagious.
Although introducing awards can be effective, this approach may also have a downside since it can be seen as an elite opportunity for the few, leaving out the majority of the workforce feeling left out and overlooked. So be sure that the process is fair, transparent, and inclusive.
Managers may also get together with other managers to discuss gratitude strategies that have (and haven’t) worked well. Consider partnering up with one or more peers to exchange ideas.
At the end of the day, building a culture of appreciation comes down mostly to a lot of small common sense practices with one underlying thread: don’t take people for granted. Remember to notice other people’s contributions and say thank you in a personal and sincere way.
Build resources by encouraging social connections and using positive reinforcements
According to the broaden-and-build theory, positive emotions lead to increased resources, which in turn lead to more positive emotions…ultimately leading to that upward spiral. This is because positive emotions broaden your vision and widen the array of thoughts and actions that come to mind. This prompts you to pursue a wider range of behaviors than is typical (e.g., play, explore, connect with others).
As a leader you can also help provide these resources by encouraging social connections and using positive reinforcement.
Encourage social connections. Meaningful social connections increase positive emotions, and can even boost your physical health. Social connections amplify the good times and to support you when things are tough. To boost social connections in the workplace, leadership can reward collaboration (or at least keep competition friendly), sponsor formal social events, and encourage employees to take the time needed to socialize outside of work.
Use positive reinforcement. A common stressor of employees is the fear of punishment or failure. Not making a sale or meeting your quota might make you anxious about the risk of losing money or being berated.
Of course there are times when negative consequences are appropriate, but psychologists generally agree that punishment is not an optimal approach. This is because it is often perceived as punitive and disparaging (boosting negative emotions), and because punishment usually does not involve adding a desirable behavior to take its place. This only adds to the downward spiral of sales job stress.
So leadership should instead cultivate positive emotions by using positive reinforcement. The concept is pretty simple: if you reward a certain behavior, it is more likely to be repeated. In what follows we will discuss some tips for implementing positive reinforcement
Use individualized reinforcers. Because people are reinforced by different things, rewards must be valuable to employees in order to be effective. For example, giving free parking space to employees who mainly come by public transport doesn’t do the trick. Talk to your employees individually to find out what motivates them and keeps them going. Some tips include:
- Get creative. You could even allow pet-lovers to take their dog to work (this also relates to decreased job stress and higher job satisfaction).
- Apply the reinforcement immediately. Only when behavior and reward are temporarily closely together, the two will be psychologically linked.
- ‘Spice things up’. Using the same kind of reinforcement (a coupon for the same restaurant over and over again) might no longer work. If you use various types of reinforcement, they stay stimulated. You can use both social reinforcers (e.g., verbal appreciation), small token reinforcements (e.g., free snacks), and economic incentives (e.g., bonuses).
You could also try to connect external reinforcement with computerized feedback. This can be useful because it provides another medium in which behaviors and rewards are cognitively linked. For example, visual aids can help acknowledge an employee for his or her success. This visual and detailed representation of achievements are also relatively easy to implement, and can be integrated into your company’s digital workspace.
Summary of how to broaden your vision and build resources when fighting sales job stress
In sum, in this post we discussed several tactics for how you can cultivate positive emotions in yourself and your organization. By inducing these positive emotions, a broadened mindsets leads to adaptive benefits and building personal resources. Specifically, we focused on two lessons:
- Stop the downward spiral by detecting (early) warning signs, encouraging breaks, sharing mental health resources, and acknowledging normalcy.
- Encourage meaning making by involving the employee in everyday decisions and acknowledging their contribution
- Use positive reinforcement. Make sure reinforcements are personalized, immediate, and diversified.