Sales Rep Performance: You’ll See It When You Believe It

Thomas K. Connellan

By Thomas K. Connellan

In an ancient Greek myth, a sculptor named Pygmalion creates an ivory statue of the ideal woman and is so taken with its perfection that he falls hopelessly in love with it. His creation seems so real to him that he expects it to speak to him and return his love. He begs, prays, and offers her gifts. When she does not respond, he despairs. The goddess Aphrodite eventually takes pity on him and brings the statue to life.

Centuries later, the playwright George Bernard Shaw drew upon the Pygmalion myth to write the story of Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, an illiterate and uncultured Cockney flower girl. Higgins makes a bet with a colleague that he can train Eliza to speak in a cultured manner and pass her off as a duchess. Thanks to his positive expectations (and a lot of hard work), he eventually does so—and, of course, falls in love with her. Shaw’s Pygmalionand the subsequent musical My Fair Lady dramatize Professor Higgins’ success in using positive expectations as a basis for helping someone reach their full potential.

The Pygmalion effect—the effect of one person’s positive expectations upon the behavior of another—is alive and well in the modern world. It is a major factor in the best school classrooms and the most successful businesses.

“Smart Kids”

Perhaps no one has done more research on the impact of expectations than Robert Rosenthal, a former professor of social psychology at Harvard University. One of Rosenthal’s more interesting studies was conducted in an elementary school with the help of Lenore Jacobson, a staff member of a West Coast school system. Each grade in the school had three classes: one for children of above-average ability, one for children of average ability, and one for children of below-average ability. Schoolchildren were given an intelligence test, which Rosenthal and Jacobson told teachers would accurately predict which students would become “intellectual bloomers.” The researchers gave teachers the names of those children who, they said, had scored high in testing and would show remarkable gains in intellectual development during the school year. What the teachers were not told, however, was that Rosenthal and Jacobson had simply chosen 20 percent of the pupils, at random, to be “intellectual bloomers.” The only real difference between these students and the other 80 percent in each class was in the minds and expectations of their teachers.

At the end of the school year, the children were again given the same IQ test. The children in each class who had been randomly designated “intellectual bloomers” showed an average IQ increase four points higher than their classmates—obviously the result of their teachers’ expectations. When the teachers were asked to describe the behavior of their students, they said the “bloomers” were more interesting, more curious, happier, slightly more appealing, better adjusted, more affectionate, and less anxious for social approval.

Also interesting was the way teachers reacted to students who improved in IQ but were not designated “bloomers”: The higher their IQ gain, the more likely the children were to be considered less interesting, less well-adjusted, and less affectionate. Their improvement, against expectations, was viewed as a negative.

In his classic Harvard Business Reviewarticle, “Pygmalion in Management,” J. Sterling Livingston described a similar response among sales managers. The district office manager of a large life insurance company observed that new insurance agents performed better in outstanding, fast-growing agencies, so he assigned his best agents to work with the best assistant manager. The six next-best agents were assigned to an average assistant manager, and the lowest producers went to work for the least able assistant manager. This distribution produced some interesting results.

  1. The esprit de corps of the salespeople selected as the top producers—often called the “super staff”—was high, and their production efforts were even better than anyone expected. Under the top assistant manager, they brought in an overall increase in sales.
  2. The productivity of the low producers, working with the lowest-rated manager, fell even lower than before and, as expected, attrition increased.
  3. The average unit, which the district manager had expected to stay about the same, surprised Livingston by significantly increasing its production. The assistant manager in charge of this group refused to believe that she was any less capable than the assistant manager of the “super staff” or that his agents were less capable than those in the top group. She communicated her high expectations to her sales reps and told them that with persistence and hard work they could match or surpass the performance of the “super staff” strongest rivals. And, in fact, that is what they did: the “average” group increased their production by a higher percentage than did the “super staff.”

The Pygmalion Effect is one of the strongest levers you have to boost your reps performance. We know from our workshops that sales reps thrive on the carefully conceived and thoughtfully delivered communiqué. In the office and out, both medium and message can make or break the power of positive expectations.

That means that every piece of you has to believe. Everything matters.Everything! Every word, every gesture, every intonation, every tweak to the setting. Every one of those must be congruent with you and your message. Here’s the headline version. It’s a play on the old saying, “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

As far as your sales reps’ performance is concerned, you’ll see it when you believe it. Their improved performance starts with changes in your behavior.

As soon as that happens, their behavior will begin to change within 24 hours, because you will be communicating your confidence in your sales reps in a way that they experience that confidence.

Lessons for Sales Managers

  1. If you do a better job of believing in your reps, they’ll do a better job of believing in themselves.
  2. You set the tone, and your reps will follow.
  3. Not every rep will be great, but every rep can do better than they’re doing now.

© 2010 Thomas K. Connellan.

Thomas K. Connellan is a keynote speaker whose clients include FedEx, Home Depot, Neiman Marcus, and GlaxoSmithKline. For more information, visit To purchase “Turbulent Times Leadership for Sales Managers: How the Very Best Boost Sales,” visit