Competitive salespeople don’t always compete.

sales sales leadership sales management Aug 10, 2020


When I was 11 years old, I placed third in an international Kyokushin karate tournament in Germany and was the only finalist to place without yet being a black belt. And I cried. Not tears of joy. As I accepted my trophy I should have been proud to win, I cried because I didn’t place first. 

You could say I’m competitive. And always have been. 

Many years later as a sales rep, my VP learned how competitive I was at a team happy hour while, of all things, playing a drinking game. From what I remember he looked at me and said something to the effect of, “I’ve never realized how competitive you are! You’ve never given a shit about a single sales contest I’ve had.”

To which I responded, “No, but I’ve never missed a sales number in three years and I earn every Friday afternoon off for being at 140% of plan. Every. Single. One.” 

Competitiveness is a funny thing. Some people play for the fun of playing. Others are competitive and they aren’t playing for the sport of it, they are playing to win. The truly hyper-competitive people care about one thing more than winning: not losing.

In sales, I concentrated on the things I had most control of, which was hitting a particular goal each month and earning Friday afternoons off. Sales contests on artificial deadlines introduced too many other variables outside of my control, like sandbagging and luck. So, while many people with presumably healthier levels of competitiveness responded to sales contests, the mental calculus I performed didn’t give me enough of an edge to win, so I didn’t play. And if I didn’t play, I didn’t win, nor did I lose.

This may sound like bad sportsmanship, but it’s really not. I’m not a sore loser — anymore. I just dislike losing more than most people. 

So, how do you incorporate this if you are leading or managing hyper-competitive people? 

The most important thing you can do as a manager is recognize that just because someone is competitive, it doesn’t mean they are going to compete to win “your thing.” If you find that someone on your team regularly competes in events outside of the office, or focuses on just one or two things they can win and are unresponsive to everything else, embrace it. Don’t try to make someone care about your contest, your incentive, your award, or your “thing.” 

Some people won’t give a shit about “President’s Club.” 

Some people don’t care that doing “x, y, and z” will increase their comp by $10,000. 

Some people don’t care about time off. 

If you are in a position of sales leadership, embrace the differences and do what is fundamental to every effective sales process on the planet: understand your audience. When you understand your audience, which are the people on your team, you’ll be in a position to help them achieve what they want to achieve. And that helps you achieve what you want to achieve.

The people on your team may not be motivated by the same things that motivate you. So what?

Your customers don’t need to think like you, nor does everyone on your team. 

Designing different incentive programs to appeal to different audiences and personality types on your team allows you to: 

  • Help people achieve what they really want to achieve. 

  • Break out of the “everyone should think like me” mindset and encourage genuine diversity. 

  • Get maximum impact out of the incentives you are creating. 

And if you really want to appeal to the inner motivation of an insanely competitive individual, create systems that allow them to win and lose on the merit of their work. While many people will play for the sport of it, hyper-competitive people aren’t in it for a participation trophy. 

More on this can be found in the great research of Marcus Buckingham and Gallup for their works in First, Break All the Rules, StrengthsFinder, and other great work on strengths-based leadership. 



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