We’ve all squirmed uncomfortably watching some talentless candidate audition for American Idol.  After they are told by the judges they have no talent, they either fall into tearful disappointment, or defiantly challenge the motivation, intelligence or integrity of the judges.

            As we’ve watched, feeling really embarrassed for them, my wife and I would look at each other and ask:

            “Didn’t anyone tell them?”

“Didn’t their parents or their family tell them that they had no singing talent?”

“How could their friends have allowed them to go on thinking that they were a singer?”

“How could they have so deluded themselves?”

The painful truth is that their subjective view of themselves clashed horribly with the objective truth disseminated by the judges.  The clamor of those two forces slamming together resulted in an embarrassing life-changing moment, viewed by millions of people.  The problem was they probably never held themselves up for review objectively, preferring to remain within their subjective self-image.

That seems to be a pretty wide-spread character flaw among American Idol contestants.  Even the finalists exhibit it.  Over and over again, the judges remark about a poor “choice of songs.”  The typical response goes something like this: 
            “I don’t care what they think.  I’ve always liked that song and I wanted to sing it.”

In other words, “It doesn’t matter what older and wiser experts think, my view is more accurate than their view. “Self-delusion rippled throughout a young adult’s self-image.

What has that to do with salespeople?

In recent years, I’ve come to see that character trait (self-delusion) as far more abundant among the salespeople with whom I work than in the past.  While it may be a generational trait, infecting every job title and position, since I work primarily with salespeople, I notice it primarily in sale people.

The tendency to delude oneself regarding our abilities has become an epidemic.  Protecting our fragile self-image from the objective reality is somehow more important today than ever before.

Not that this is a new character trait.  I’m sure that, from the advent of mankind, people have been defensive to critics and protective of their self-images.  It’s just that most people, most of the time, eventually get over it.  They learn to allow for the fact that maybe their “own style” could use a little work.  Maybe Simon really does know the music business.

But in my world — helping B2B salespeople improve their performance – I find an increasing number of salespeople, who, having spent much of their careers in situations which culture a warped view of their own abilities, are more and more hardened against objective reality.  Convinced that their subjective view of their own abilities is accurate, they remain locked in the delusion that they really are good at this, and that subjective view prevents them from growing and improving.  Why bother developing yourself when you are already very good?

They spend much of their day in isolation, in their cars, waiting rooms, etc. and have a lot of time to think, as opposed to their colleagues inside the office who must interact with their co-workers.  This isolation breeds the growth of subjective pictures of one’s own abilities.  Now, take this richly fermenting base and add to it the common practice of most companies of not training their sales people in the best practices of the best professionals — where sales people are left on their own to figure out how to do their job well – and you have an environment that often produces a warped view of their own abilities.

Inevitably, salespeople – and maybe people in general — think they are better than they are.  They believe they have more skills than they really have.  They vastly overestimate the quality and depth of their relationships with their customers.  They often miss opportunities they claim were not there, and blindly defend their choices of which customers to see.

“You don’t understand,” they will often say, “I have my own style of selling.”  That’s the salesperson’s equivalent of the American Idol response, “I don’t care what the judge thinks; I did it my way.”  As if that settles it.

Whenever I hear that comment, I think to myself, “I hope you will grow up.  I hope you will mature to the point that you understand your view isn’t what counts. “

The objective reality is this:  There is, in every profession, whether it be singing or sales, a set of best practices, of objective standards for what constitutes an excellent performer.  You can have your own style, you can think of yourself as really good, but as long as you remain hidden behind that subjective reality, you will probably never become a top performer.

Those who excel are those who throw themselves into the scrutiny of the experts and who, by disciplined will power, methodically add the best practices to their routines.

In sales, as in American Idol, it is rarely the one with the most natural talent who wins.  It is the one who is mature enough to seek the suggestions of those experts around him and disciplined enough to implement them.