Does Your Sales Group Only Encourage “Unicorn” Feedback?


In recent conversations with mortgage sales managers, many lamented that senior managers at their companies don’t want to hear the truth about potential issues. According to the sales managers I spoke with, senior executives only want to hear how wonderful everything is and that nothing needs to be improved. Furthermore, these sales managers said that when they do voice concerns, their feedback is not well-received and they are labeled as not being team players.

One manager noted, if a group doesn’t want to know the reality of their situation, how will they get better? When “unicorn” statements are the only feedback senior managers will accept, organizations are not able to recognize and implement important changes.

In my opinion, this culture of telling “white lies” instead of addressing problems head-on is not limited to a few firms but is actually widespread. Why does this happen?

I have experienced this phenomenon firsthand in my own corporate career as well as in my sales consulting practice. It is a mystery to me when a company hires a third party to help solve a problem, then doesn’t want to know the truth about what needs to be corrected. It doesn’t make sense to me.

According to Dr. Tasha Eurich, a well-known organizational psychologist, author and speaker, when humans behave in a manner that doesn’t make sense, we have to look at our earliest days as a species for clues. Eurich says “in the early days of the human race, individual survival depended on belonging to a group, and breaking the rules often meant having to go it alone. For that reason, humans are hard-wired to avoid upsetting the social norm. In fact, researchers have shown that social rejection activates the same parts of our brain that physical pain does!”  No wonder delivering the truth can seem so risky.

Unfortunately, companies and managers who do not embrace a reality-driven sales model may face dire consequences. The inability to accept the truth that a company’s product or services are no longer competitive is certainly a tough pill to swallow and can cause senior managers to fear for their jobs.

When companies collapse, the reason is often that management did not listen to employees about what was happening in the marketplace. In the business world, there are a litany of firms like Sears, Kmart and Nokia that were once great companies but failed to adapt to the changing needs of their customers.

A culture of “white lies” can manifest in a number of different ways in an organization. Examples include glowing performance reviews for employees who are not doing well; and pep rallies with motivational speakers that mask the real performance issues and prevent an honest discussion about what isn’t working.

Eurich says that the problem with this type of sales culture is “when we don’t know the truth about our behavior or our performance, the result is an enjoyable but dangerous sense of blissful ignorance.” Senior managers who operate in avoidance mode will inevitably have to contend with poor sales results.


Improving Self-Awareness

Eurich suggests three strategies for improving self-awareness:

  1. Look for indirect feedback. Recognizing that people don’t always tell us the truth about our performance, they often do send indirect signals that convey their real feelings. Whether it’s body language, tone of voice or even what someone doesn’t say, indirect signals can provide important insights.
  2. Find loving critics. “Loving critics” can deliver difficult truths because they care and want us to succeed. Surrounding yourself with people who are willing to tell you the truth about your performance can make all the difference. If you do not have a group like that, it may be well worth it to hire a sales coach to objectively assess your individual strengths and weaknesses and recommend an improvement plan.
  3. Listen first, respond later. Listening to tough feedback is hard.  There is no question about it. It is wise to listen and not respond immediately. Eurich recommends taking a few days to reflect on points that were made before determining a course of action.

In my view, establishing a sales culture where honest feedback and different opinions can be openly shared for the greater good of the organization is the highest responsibility of senior leadership. Cultivating this type of environment starts at the top and it is up to senior managers to set the tone and example. As we move into unsettled times in mortgage banking, it is a smart strategy to listen to the truth — whatever form it takes. Your company’s success depends on it.