A few years ago I did an informal 360 Review for Jacob, a CEO of a small start-up, and learned that his employees viewed him as indecisive, inconsistent and a “flip-flopper.” Jacob’s staff felt like he waited too long to make decisions, and when he finally would choose a direction, the risk he might change his mind was pretty high. His product team would work for weeks on a new feature, only to have to reverse course every time Jacob demoed the product with a new investor or customer.
“We’re running full out all the time, but it’s like we’re standing in place. It’s exhausting,” lamented one employee over coffee. “I just wish he could pick a direction and stick to it, instead of always changing to please whatever person he’s trying to impress.”
The phrase “trying to impress” caught my attention, and with a little more inquiry this employee and I hit on what we thought was the at the root of her office woes. Deep down, Jacob was so concerned about people liking him and his company, that he was willing to tie himself and his employees in knots trying to match what he thought they wanted.
I encountered this mentality a lot early in my career, when I was selling enterprise software. I watched other salespeople in the office attempt to convince their prospects to buy by selling them on features that didn’t exist, or pitching applications for the software that were outside of the product’s design. Time and again, I saw them laying the groundwork for disappointing clients and stressing out their engineers.
Trying too hard to convince someone to like you or what you offer can backfire in many different ways. First, like Jacob, it can make you come across as wishy-washy and inconsistent. People don’t know what you stand for and find themselves second guessing if they can depend on you. Second, you set people (including yourself) up for frustration and disappointment as you struggle to deliver on unnecessary promises — often roping others in along the way. Third, it can be stressful and emotionally draining to be constantly worried about what others think. And perhaps most importantly, trying to be all things to all people means you stop expressing what makes you unique, and the value that you actually bring to the world.
In my experience, this practice of re-inventing yourself or your offerings every time you start to feel rejection comes from one of two things: either you have a lack of clarity around what exactly it is that you offer, or you have a lack of clarity around the value of that offering. Nature abhors a vacuum, so when people experience gaps in their clarity, the instinct is to fill in those gaps either with bluster or fear.
The solution to this dilemma, of course, is simply to get clear. Take the time to make your offering as concrete in your mind as possible — either on your own or with some trusted support. Write down what it is, and what it isn’t. If you struggle with identifying the value, make some guesses and then find people you know are a good fit and reality test with them. Focus on information gathering, not selling (if a sale comes out of it, that’s icing). If you don’t manage to nail the value, go back and try again. Keep trying until you hit it and then — here’s the key — trust it.
I was lucky. Soon after I started in that sales position I found a mentor who could work the phones like a champ. Steve had a mental list of five attributes a prospect had to have for them to be a “yes” for our product. From those attributes he created five simple questions, and smoothly wove them into his pitch. If the person he was speaking to said “no” to just one of these, he would politely get off the phone as quickly as he could and move on to the next number on the list. He trusted that our product had significant value for the right type of prospect, and knew that if the person on the phone wasn’t a match, every second he spent trying to convince them was a waste of his time and theirs.
In business as in life, when people don’t like you or your products, we have the choice to see the disconnect as a fault of ourselves or simply as a signal that the situation is not a match — neither good nor bad. Instead of attempting to change who you are to suit the person you are speaking to, use the fact they may not be attracted to you as a filter for ensuring you surround yourself with people will be a support for you or your company.
Qualifying questions are a frequently used sales technique, and they are equally useful in other areas of life. Whether you’re going after a promotion with a new boss, or attempting to turn a few dates into a serious relationship, you are better off in the long run knowing what makes people a match for you and using rejection as a signal that it’s time to move on. Stemming from the clarity process outlined above, these objective questions make non-matches quicker and easier to spot, saving you significant time and energy.
Take a moment to get clear about what you offer, and the value you bring in your personal life and your professional life. If necessary, ask for feedback from a few trusted friends. Then think about five questions people would need to say yes to, to be a match for you in these two areas. These questions might be the same for both areas, or they might be different. Next, think through the people in your life and discern who is a true match for you and who may not be (or perhaps clearly is not).
In the case of the non-matches, how have you been compromising or distorting who you are and what you offer to make that relationship work? What is the cost for you, in terms of energy expended and sense of self-worth? What is one step that you can take this week to start to separate yourself from relationships that don’t support who you truly are?
“I don’t care whether people like me or dislike me. I’m not on earth to win a popularity contest. I’m here to be the best human being I possibly can be.” ― Tab Hunter