Selling Past the Close: Is your enthusiasm killing your employee motivation?

I once worked for a person who continued to explain and persuade even after I had agreed to complete a task. He would give me an assignment, explain why it needed to be done, and I’d agree . . . which was apparently his cue to kick into upsell mode. He would keep piling on reasons until he was sure I was properly motivated. And once he was sure I was there, he continued with at least 5 more minutes of what he considered pure motivational pump-me-up. But for me, it was deflating. He was actively sucking every last bit of motivational air out of my “want-to” innertube. I felt as all my inherent motivation was being niggled to death.

Nobody likes to be bugged, bothered, or bullied into their work—especially when they already know they should do it. It’s one thing to be reminded, and another to be pestered. And so it was with this well-intentioned leader as he systematically squelched any sprouting motivation by talking past three oks, two suggestions to move on, and at least four obvious non-verbal cues from me.  He was selling past the close—way past the close.

What is “selling past the close”?

The term “selling past the close” has its origins in sales.  It starts with an overzealous salesperson and ends with a dissatisfied customer.  The basic premise is that there’s a point in the sales conversation where the customer has made a decision and verbalized their intent to purchase.  The deal is closed. When the salesperson continues to actively “sell,” they are selling past the close.

At best this is annoying, as it communicates to the customer that the salesperson isn’t listening or isn’t focused on them at all in the transaction. At worst, it works to change people’s minds and sour relationships because they feel hassled to continue to dwell on a decision they’ve already made.

How selling past the close kills employee motivation

The same thing happens when you, as an enthusiastic and well-meaning leader, continue to pitch motivation after motivation. You’re basically telling employees you’re not registering and respecting their responses.

According to research, 40% of team project success depends on employee motivation. That’s a big chunk of your success. Yet all too often, well meaning managers are getting in the way of driving effective motivation.

A leader who keeps telling an employee why they should want to do what they’ve already willingly agreed to do is communicating, “I don’t trust you or your grasp of the situation,” or, “I don’t consider you a key part of what we’re doing.”

How this kind of demotivation happens

Years of consulting experience showed me that my experience with this “master of motivational leadership” was not an isolated one. I’ve learned that selling past the close, in all its varieties, is one of the most fast-acting de-motivators around. 

In one organization I worked with, a leader was problem-solving with one of her direct reports.  She was masterful at clearly stating her concern in a way that made it safe for the employee to respond.  She listened carefully as he described his challenges and struggles.  She helped him come up with a plan to address his challenges. The solution was elegant, and the employee was on board and ready to try again.

And then, almost as if she was set to autopilot, the leader proceeded to systematically undo all her terrific work with an extended motivational lecture. I watched the light go out of the employee’s face. You could see he felt more and more like a sounding board than a collaborator.

“The question so many people ask, namely ‘How do I motivate people to learn? To Work? To do their chores? To take their medicine?’—are the wrong questions. They are wrong because they imply that motivation is something that gets done to people rather than something that people do.”

Edward L. Delci with Richard Flaste, from Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation

Another time, a well-intentioned leader jumped into a team discussion he thought was moving toward a bad decision—which, by the way, was actually the case.  He shared his very well-formed perspective and was stopped halfway in by agreement from the team. “Oh, yeah.  We hadn’t considered that. You’re absolutely right—we’re with you now.” 

But the leader held a firm belief that no one should be deprived of all of his thoughts on the matter, so he forged ahead with the second half of his speech. The team sat back, went silent, and nodded as appropriate. What the boss saw as a rallying speech came across to the team as self-congratulation and the need to be a one-man show. 

The boss’s input-turned-lecture ultimately resulted in a better decision—that everyone resented. As a result, efforts to implement the solution moved slowly and valuable time-to-market was lost.

None of us are immune

I totally understand how this kind of damage to employee motivation can happen.  I’ve found myself knowing I should stop talking, yet feeling compelled to carry on because I hadn’t provided my complete perspective.

At one point, in the not too distant past, I fell into this same trap. I was impressed with an idea Daniel Pink put forth in his book Drive, namely:“Do I get a say, or don’t I?” That is, when I feel I don’t have a say, or can’t get a word in edge-wise, I lose motivation.”

I was so excited about this concept that I could not be deterred from sharing, sharing, sharing, and sharing why this was so important for our team while systematically preventing anyone from getting a word in edge-wise (take a little pause for irony).

In the moment, it feels like if a little motivation is good, the safe bet is to slather on a little more just in case I didn’t give it enough.  But once you pass that “I have an agreement” threshold, all the extra motivation-sauce ends up drowning out any of the taste of original motivation they had.

How to avoid upselling motivation

So how do you stop yourself from undermining the motivation you’re trying to instill? You can keep yourself from being one of these motivation-killing leaders by being aware and monitoring your own tendencies to sell past the close.  Keep the following tips in mind when you find yourself actively motivating.

1. Listen for agreement If you have a “yes” but feel like the other person just isn’t motivated enough, resist that temptation to jump into “sell” mode.  They’ve agreed, and may really be on board. But if you’re concerned, check with the other party instead of making assumptions.

2. If you’re unsure, ask It’s ok to ask people if they have any additional concerns, doubts, or reservations after commitments have been made with questions like, “Does this seem like something you’re willing to do?

It’s also ok to check for barriers or challenges that may sap existing motivation down the road. For example, “Is there anything else that might keep you from doing this?”

But once you get their ok, leave them with the motivation they’ve already acknowledged.

In the end,

motivation is an important component of employee engagement and productivity. But when you sell past the close it puts you in the position of opponent.

In an article I ran across recently, David Radin, director of business development at Dale Carnegie’s leadership training institute, is quoted as saying, “You don’t become a leader because of your position. You become a leader because people want to follow you.”

Make sure you’re the kind of leader people want to follow—not the kind who feels compelled to keep convincing them they should.

Monitor your own tendencies, respond appropriately, and help your employees succeed.