“No, Paul, I didn’t spend any time prospecting yesterday. I woke up and just didn’t feel enthused; didn’t want to be here. Whenever I force myself to prospect when I feel that way, I always feel like I’m wearing a mask trying to be someone I’m not. If I can’t be true to who I am, I’m not serving my clients, my company, or myself well.”
Dana (not her real name) is one of my newest coaching clients. She is a strong producer selling relationship management software to small to mid-size companies in the northeast part of the country. She finished the year well ahead of quota. She isn’t the only salesperson I’ve spoken to who has an ethical issue with “being someone I’m not.” In fact, she’s not the first seller who has referred to feeling like they’re being insincere, false, or lying when acting one way while thinking or feeling another way.
We may as well get the truth laid out on the table right now—we ALL wear masks. We wear them a lot.
Society demands we wear them.
Professionalism demands we wear them.
We want to wear them.
While talking with Charlie Green of TrustedAdvisor.com and Jeb Brooks of The Brooks Group about this article, both pointed out a book written in the 50’s by Erving Goffman titled The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life where Goffman contends that we are always, 100% of the time wearing some kind of a mask.
Although I’m not sure I buy the idea that our whole life is nothing but a continual, uninterrupted series of masks, I do believe that the concept that we all wear masks at times—especially in business–is pretty self-evident.
The question isn’t whether we wear masks, the question is: are the masks we wear ethical? And if they’re ethical, do they inhibit trust? At an even more basic level, are they designed to lie or to help us tell the truth?
Certainly we are all familiar with the mask so often associated with salespeople—that of the fake friend, our false ally who is going to help us get the best deal possible, fighting for us against his or her unreasonable manager, all the while lying and double-dealing without shame in order to maximize the sales price and, thus, their commission.
That mask of lies is what many salespeople associate with our profession and consequently they try to distance themselves from that image by inventing all kinds of titles (masks) for themselves that are designed to communicate they are NOT salespeople—they’re ‘advisors,’ ‘consultants,’ ‘customer advocates,’ ‘customer guides,’ ‘account managers,’ and dozens of other, mostly meaningless, titles.
Fortunately, although still used by hucksters and con artists, the mask above is slowing being forced out of the legitimate sales world as more prospects become educated about their potential purchases long before engaging a salesperson. For most of us that clichéd mask isn’t in our hip pockets any longer.
But many other masks are. A few examples:
The, “Ms. Prospect, I’m really excited to speak with you this morning” mask when in actuality we feel crappy and would rather be doing anything other than speaking with her. This is the one that Dana feels would be being dishonest with her prospects if she put it on when feeling like she’d rather be anyplace else than on the phone prospecting.
The, “yes, I understand how grievous a transgression it is being 5 minutes late to the meeting. I’m sorry, it will never happen again” mask when in actuality we’re thinking “geeze, are you kidding? The transgression is your pathetic excuse for a meeting that sucks the life out me and everyone else.”
The, “I know that your budget is tight and this is a tough decision, but my solution will increase your sales and put significant dollars on your bottom-line” mask when you’re actually thinking “OK, you have more money than you know what to do with, you cheapskate; knock it off with the games and let’s get down to business.”
Certainly salespeople aren’t the only ones who wear masks. Sales managers wear their own masks, especially when dealing with their sales team and upper management.
Typical sales manager masks are:
The, “Bryan, man, just apply what we’ve been working on and you’re going to be just fine. I know it’s been tough, but I have every confidence that you can be a great producer” mask while thinking “Man, what was I thinking when I hired this dimwit? What a goofball, it’ll take a miracle for him to last another month.”
And the “yes, sir, I talked to the team this morning and we’re on it. You’ll see results by the end of the week” mask while thinking “Last week the crisis was to sell the XB2 systems and this week the future of the world depends on us forgetting about everything else and pushing the YS add-on. You guys have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”
And, of course, there are a million other masks that we wear for our prospects, a different set for our clients, another set for our managers, and an even different set for our colleagues and co-workers.
Mask after mask is put on and taken off every day.
Are we justified in wearing them? What happens to trust if we’re caught wearing one by our prospect or client?
These are really tough questions because, as Charlie pointed out in our discussion, a mask is by its very nature deceitful—at a minimum it’s hiding something we don’t want seen or is projecting something we don’t feel at the moment; and certainly most of us would consider being deceitful as bad. Quite a dilemma—how can we be doing something that is considered bad and call it good? Would Dana have been engaged in unethical activity if she had put on that “great to connect with you” mask when she didn’t feel like prospecting?
Tough questions. My initial reaction to Dana was that the issue isn’t whether it is right or wrong to put on a mask because the mask itself is neutral—neither good nor bad. The determining factor as to whether a particular mask is ethical or unethical is its intended purpose—why we put the mask on in the first place.
Was our intent to help build a relationship–or to manipulate someone into doing something they might not otherwise do?
Were we trying to be sociable and considerate–or were we simply trying to catch someone off guard in order to slip something by them?
Was it with the intent of being constructive–or with the intent of destroying?
As I thought about this issue over the next few days, I decided to ask a couple of friends what their thoughts were; thus my conversation with Charlie, Jeb, and Daniel Waldschmidt of EdgyConversations.com.
There seems to be two central points of agreement between the four of us:
- Masks are an absolute necessity. As Charlie pointed out, without masks the very concepts of etiquette and manners cease to exist. Or if we consider the deception of masks to be bad, then we would have to condemn the concepts of manners and etiquette since conforming to the rules by putting on the appropriate masks would be bad acts in and of themselves. He sees that we put on masks for one of two reasons: either out of fear or out of respect, politeness and etiquette.
I’ll add a third: to acquire something we want that we don’t believe we can get without being someone or something we aren’t. (To be fair, I suspect Charlie would file this as just another form of a fear based mask.)
Certainly no one would want to live in a world without rules governing how we act with one another. In the 60’s, many of us of the Boomer generation decided that we needed to be “true to ourselves.” We took that to mean that doing anything we didn’t feel like doing—or not doing that which we wanted to do—was a disingenuous act, conforming to the bourgeois norms of a crass and corrupt society. We dispensed with much of society’s rules of behavior (and unwittingly adopted our own rules of behavior which we rationalized by “believing” the socially accepted acts we conformed to within our group were our own spontaneous actions that emanated from the real “me”). It wasn’t pretty.
Most of us eventually grew out of it (a few, sadly, have been permanently lost in a stupor of blue smoke while clinging to their hookah) as we realized the masks of broader society were not only necessary unless we were willing to live in a minor subculture, they were more comfortable and in many ways more genuine than the masks we adopted when we were just ‘being true to ourselves.’ As Dan Waldschmidt put it, “Being sanctimonious about ‘not wanting to be who you’re not’ isn’t cool for pedophiles, rapists, or molesters. Why would sales execs claim any exception?” (Or sanctimonious 60’s youth for that matter.)
So, no less in our professional life, as our social life, masks are mandatory. Business etiquette demands we treat our prospects, clients, and business associates with respect—even if we don’t like or respect them. Professional ethics demand that we perform at the highest level and with complete courtesy even with a prospect or client who is rude and hateful.
Business success demands that we interact and deal with our prospects, clients, and company associates with dignity and respect—and total professionalism even when we don’t feel like it. Just try going a week being “true to who you are” and see how successful you are.
- Most masks are ethically neutral—it’s your underlying reason for putting the mask on that determines whether the mask is ethical or not.
Certainly some masks, such as the stereotypical seller mask introduced above, aren’t ethically neutral because they’re designed for one purpose—to defraud someone by making them think they are getting something they aren’t (usually a better or product than they’re really getting) or to coerce them into buying something they don’t want to buy.
What about the other masks we identified above?
But what about the mask Dana felt was trying to be someone she isn’t? Is that mask bad or good? Actually it could go either way. In Dana’s case the intent isn’t to harm but rather to be able to efficiently utilize her time prospecting even when she doesn’t “feel” like prospecting. Her intent is, as Jeb put it, to “increase the comfort level” of the people she’s speaking with. She has a “genuine intent of getting the most out of an interaction.”
If, on the other hand, Dana’s intent was to open a door by appearing to be something she isn’t with the intent to harm, whether through fraud, lying about the product or service to get a sale, or for any other illicit reason, wearing the mask would be unethical because it is being worn with bad intent.
Let’s look at the mask warn by the sales manager who encouraged his salesperson to apply what they’ve been working on together and he’ll be just fine even though the sales manager doubts the salesperson will make it. Again, this mask can go either way ethically. If the manager’s intent was to try to encourage the salesperson with the hope, no matter how small, that the salesperson will get it in gear and turn things around, the mask is ethical as the intent is to produce a positive outcome.
On the other hand, if the intent of the mask is simply to get the salesperson out of the sales manager’s hair until the manager can work out the details of firing the person, the mask is unethical as it’s only intent is to deceive the salesperson into believing he is working to save his job when in fact the decision to fire him has already been made. Unfortunately, this unethical mask is worn by many, many sales managers every day.
The next few masks are a bit more difficult to deal with.
The, “yes, I understand how grievous a transgression it is being 5 minutes late to the meeting. I’m sorry, it will never happen again” mask would certainly seem to be hiding not only the salesperson’s feelings about the value and content of the sales meetings they are required to attend, but possibly a general disrespect for his or her sales manager. If it is simply a mask hiding their evaluation of the value of the sales meetings, I think the mask ethical in order to maintain civility and out of respect for their manager (although I would certainly think they should have a discussion with their manager about their perceived value of the meetings). If, on the other hand, the mask is really one of many that are covering their attitude toward their manager, the mask is unethical because, to borrow a phrase from Charlie, “there’s too much of an honesty gap.”
I believe the mask where the sales manager questions to himself whether or not senior management has a clue as to what they are doing is in and of itself unethical, again for the reason that there is simply too much disrespect being hidden.
In both of these instances the individual must take action to correct the honesty gap—either a discussion with the sales manager or senior management to clear the respect issues (uh, yeah, that probably won’t happen) or moving to an organization where they do respect their management.
The salesperson who questions the lack of available dollars to purchase his or her product or service has, in my opinion, a far different issue—making the assumption that the prospect is lying. This certainly isn’t an infrequent reaction—a great many of us instinctively make this assumption as soon as we hear monetary objections. But are we justified in making the assumption? In most cases, I doubt it. Are we justified in masking our belief? Yes, I think so. If one of the valid reasons for adopting a mask is with, as Jeb said, the “genuine intent of getting the most out of an interaction,” then masking our suspicion is justified and ethical. That doesn’t mean, however, that the suspicion itself might not be an indication that we need to take a close look at how we view our prospects and clients. Although the mask itself may not be unethical, our view of our prospects and clients might.
OK, so we’ve narrowed it down to the idea that masks are necessary and for the most part whether or not a particular mask is ethical is dependent upon the reason the mask has been put on.
What does that mean for us as sellers—if anything?
If we all are wearing masks, what’s to keep us from wearing the mask that will get us what we want, even if that mask is unethical? What happens if we are caught by a prospect or client wearing a mask?
At its core, understanding that we are usually–if not always–wearing a mask gives us the ability to gain some control over the masks we wear. It gives us the opportunity to make some ethical decisions we might not otherwise make and that we might wish not to make by forcing us to analyze the reasons we put on the masks we wear. Are we putting a particular mask on in order to better serve a prospect–or to better serve our desire, no matter the ethical cost?
Charlie gives a great summary of the role masks play in our professional lives, so I’ll quote him at length:
“If I wear a mask in front of you out of fear, it is to protect myself from you. Perhaps to project myself from your judgment, or to keep you from taking something I have, or to keep you from getting something I want. Inherent in fear-based use of masks is a bad intent: to keep you from seeing some truth about something (usually some truth about me).
“So fear-based masks are inherently oppositional–they are rooted in trying to keep one party from knowing what’s going on with another.
“So–what does a fear-based mask do? It triggers every fear both a buyer and seller feel. What is he really saying? Does he actually mean that? What am I not hearing here? What’s the real thought balloon? How do I know he’s not saying something different to someone else? How do I know he’s not taking all my good stuff and spreading it around to my competitors?
“The fear-based response triggered by a mask leads to suspicion, counter-lies, deceit, covering up, shading of meanings, white lies, and a host of other modes of deception that result in more of the same reciprocally in the other party.”
“The other reason for masks is as a sign of respect, politeness, etiquette. I rise as someone I respect enters the room; I smile at an elder (or a child); I nod my head in a sign of acknowledgement when I listen to a prospect describe his or her needs. It may well be that I don’t feel like standing up, or smiling, or even that I disagree with someone–but politeness, respect, etiquette dictate a larger social reality–that we have evolved hundreds of little social rituals by which we acknowledge the legitimacy of the Other, the person in front of us, whether it is elderly Aunt Mildred, the head of sales at Xerox’s copier division, or a stranger on the street (in most towns, anyway).
“By contrast: respect-driven masks are an elaborate social ritual we go through to recognize our commonality, rather than our differentness. They break down barriers, rather than erecting them. They make it possible to live both as a corporate representative and as a human being, by emphasizing the things we have in common. The ‘masks’ include our business card stock; the cut and fabric of our clothing; our choice of ties; and all this of course is before, ‘Oh, you grew up in the Ozarks too, eh?’ Or the East Coast, because the locale doesn’t matter.”
I’m in general agreement with Charlie—but with the recognition that there are those exceptional mask wearers who are so comfortable in their fear-based or illicit acquisition-based masks they don’t create the typical response in their victims– Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford quickly come to mind.
As sellers we must be ever mindful of why we put on the masks we do. Are we sincerely trying to connect with our prospect or are we trying to manipulate them? Are we acting out of respect and desire to communicate or are we acting out of a desire to create a particular beneficial outcome for ourselves no matter the cost to the prospect or client?
The masks we wear telegraph our intent and thus can either help establish and strengthen a bond of trust with the other person or they can create a feeling of unease, caution and suspicion.
The question isn’t are you going to wear masks; the question is are you going to consciously put on ethical masks that build trust and communication or are you going to put on unethical masks designed to manipulate and control your prospect for your gain irrespective of the cost to the prospect? It’s your choice. Sooner or later you’ll reap the true value of the masks you wear—just ask Madoff and Stanford.