A quick recap: John is an ethical man who, in part, took a job as business development manager because he thought the director, his prospective boss, shared his values. In particular, he and the director were against using sales incentive plans: both thought it was wrong to set people up against one another for a prize, and both thought incentive plans demeaned the pleasure and satisfaction derived from the selling process itself.

Six months into the job, a new president came on board. The president believes in such plans, and during their first meeting, he instructed John and his boss to come up with one that includes an all-expense-paid vacation because ‘sales people eat that kind of thing up’. John expected his boss to disagree in some way, but instead he nodded, looked interested, and said he and John would be happy to come up with a plan. After the meeting, John expected his boss to explain his surprising acquiescence to this plan, but he simply asked John to put together some preliminary ideas. John did as he was asked, but the trust he had in his boss was now in question, and John found himself re-evaluating his decision to have joined the company.

A week later – a week during which John put together the ideas and concocted any number of resignation scenarios – the director told him that he was going to ask the president to let them do a six-month incentive program with an eye to seeing the sales results. His guess, he told John, was that the numbers would either stay the same (making the need for such a program moot) or go down. They’d also circulate a questionnaire asking the sales team what they thought about the program. ‘As most of the team’, the director told him, ‘isn’t keen on such programs, my aim is to let the numbers and the sales team itself speak against the incentive plan’.

It was then that John realized he’d created a problem largely of his own making. If – after that first fateful meeting with the president – John had simply told the director how surprised he was about his acquiescence to the incentive plan and asked the director whether he had changed his mind about sales plans, John would have discovered that the director was playing the long game; that he knew the president had to be perceived as a strong leader and that it might not have been wise to pick a fight in the very first major meeting, just as the director himself had to be perceived as someone who was a loyal follower, open to instructions that did not correspond to his own views. He knew it was important to establish affinity to create mutual gains down the road, and he felt he wouldn’t achieve any of those things if he’d presented a dissenting view at this early juncture.

The director didn’t undermine his values; he merely adapted his usual upfront and blunt negotiating style to fit the situation. (Indeed; the meeting with the president was a negotiation, as are most conversations and discussions that involve advancing a point of view about any given endeavor, and the director didn’t want to set a negative tone at the outset of their relationship. By adapting his style; by not focusing on a single outcome, (i.e. “No sales incentive programs under my watch!”), the director turned the meeting into an opportunity to establish a good relationship with the president, and let the results and feedback from the team speak for itself.

John hadn’t thought about any of those things. He’d focused all his attention on his boss’ seeming loss of values. Had he thought about the importance of establishing a good relationship with the president above all else – above a relatively unimportant (at this juncture) sales program; had he trusted his boss, and/or had he asked him about his stance after the meeting, John wouldn’t have created that miserable week for himself.

Of course, the director holds some responsibility as well in John going off the deep end; he should have told him why he hadn’t disagreed with the president, but he didn’t.  He was focused on trying to absorb everything that had gone on in the meeting. He’d also assumed John knew he was just being political. That was a risky assumption to make – not just from John, but from anyone.

The director however, did understand the art of compromise. He knew not to back the president into a corner; he knew not to challenge him unnecessarily; he knew how to get his way by giving way, and he knew he had to take his time in finding out what the president valued so he could approach him from that perspective in future.

What will John do if the trial incentive program turns out to be successful? If the sales team is still enjoying the whole sales process and the questionnaire shows they aren’t upset by others winning prizes?  He could reconsider his stance and possibly get behind it. But at this stage, and because of the director’s example, the answer to that question is secondary.  More importantly, John is watching the negotiations that take place during everyday conversations and discussions. Because of his experience with the director, he’s now intent on learning everything he can about good compromises.

One comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this very balanced look at the alternate perspective. I have been in situations where I’ve wondered how people can have the views they do, not recognizing that there was more going on, and see now that I wasn’t taking a large enough view of the situation.

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