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The Sales Personality, An Ambivert Advantage

Being stuck in a personality rut is bad for sales too.

Developing a more flexible personality brings huge benefits, as I have often said in this Do Something Different series of blogs. Relying on your ‘natural’ personality may be the cause of unhappiness and difficulty. In a blog last year, for example, I wrote about the dollar value of having a more flexible personality. Research over 4 years by Boyce and his colleagues showed that a flexible personality brings as much life satisfaction as an increase in income of between $92,000 and $314,000 a year.

I was pleased to see another example of how a flexible personality boosts your finances in a recent article in the excellent journal Psychological Science, by Adam Grant from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.. This study examined the common view that salespeople are more extraverted, a view I wouldn’t subscribe to. However, extraverts are more likely to be attracted to sales jobs and employers are more likely to hire them. One in 9 American works in sales, so it is an important sector of the US economy, as well as being important when individual pay is performance related.

However, to my mind it should not pay to have an inflexible extraverted personality. Clients and customers come with all kinds of different personalities of their own and not all will respond positively to the outgoing or assertive approach of the extravert. In order to maximize sales, for example, a car salesperson needs to be able to respond appropriately to all types of customer. That will require outgoing behaviours sometimes, yes, but the opposite will be needed at other times. If the extravert cannot flex their behaviour they will lose sales to a large customer sector because some customers will feel negative about how they are dealt with. I would assert (see my book Flex: Do Something Different) that the best salesperson would have BOTH extravert and intraverted behaviours in their behavioural kit-bag, rather than just one or the other.

Grant analysed the data from 340 employees of call centers that operate across the whole of the USA. The majority of the salespeople were male (71%). Their job was to generate new sales from both new and existing customers. The average age of the employees was just under 20 years old and they had only been working for about 6 months on average, so had not been working long enough to contaminate the results with tricks of the trade! They all completed a personality questionnaire measuring the Big Five personality traits (extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness and neuroticism).

Grant looked at sales over a 3-month period. Sales performance was predicted by three things – the number of hours people worked, their job tenure and what Grant calls ‘ambivert’ behaviour – having a repertoire of behaviours that includes both extraversion and intraversion, not one or the other. In the statistical modelling of their results, there was no indication that being extravert helped sales performance. In fact it revealed a clear ambivert advantage in sale revenues. Sales per hour was between 28.7% and 31.6% greater for ambiverts than those people who were predominantly introverted or extraverted (respectively). Looking at sales over a 3 month period, ambiverts produced 32% more revenue than extraverts and 24% more than introverts.

I would propose that the advantages of a truly flexible personality go far beyond those sales figures. For two main reasons. First, being able to flex behaviour to any situation brings benefits beyond work performance. People who can flex their behaviour are likely to feel better, have better relationships, grow positively, and have better lives generally. Second, Grant’s study is not really measuring flexibility of behaviour at the individual level. Instead of considering how an individual might change their personality in different circumstances, an ambivert is someone who has a mix of milder introverted and extraverted behaviours according to their test scores measured on one occasion. Measuring the ability to flex behaviour on different occasions would yield a more accurate measure of personality flexibility. This is what we have done in our lab. I will report on this work in another blog.

A study I have just had published in the Journal of Constructivist Psychology1, showed a link between being flexible and having a more complex personality profile. It also showed that flexible people are better equipped to understand and respond to demands. Standard personality tests - which measure fixed personality ‘traits’ - do not represent how changeable and flexible an individual’s behaviour can be in different circumstances. In my view the ‘trait’ approach advocated by many psychologists is regressive and represents people in a negative way. Our personalities need not be fixed, even if psychologists are happy to represent them in this way!

Breaking habits and Doing Something Different can help us see why it is good for us to expand our world a little and to reap the benefits of making small changes. One trouble with being human is that our brains are such good habit machines and kid us into thinking what we naturally do is fine. Doing Something Different helps to show how this could not be further from the truth! Flexing your natural personality can help to reshape your future life in profound and positive ways. You will not know until you try doing things a little differently though!

1. Jamie S. Churchyard, Karen J. Pine, Shivani Sharma & Ben (C) Fletcher Construction by Interpersonal Context and Relationship to Psychological Outcome. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 2013, Volume 26, Issue 4, 306-315

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