Some time ago, I (Peter) witnessed a horrific interaction in a business environment. An individual-contributor sales rep walked up to their manager to ask for some tactical help on a particular deal that they were managing. The rep only progressed as far as, “Hey, could you please help me with … ” when their manager angrily cut them off. With one arm in a “talk to the hand” position and the other pointing back to the rep’s cubicle, the boss shouted, “STOP. Just go back to your desk and [expletive] SELL!This is not an exaggeration.

The sales manager wasn’t teaching their rep to fish nor giving them a fish to eat. They clearly felt no reason to coach or support their direct report, perhaps having already considered them a lost cause. Maybe the instructions had already been made clear and were being ignored. Maybe the manager was just having a bad day. But does the reason even matter? They were as effective a manager as Alec Baldwin’s character, Blake, in “Glengarry Glenn Ross” (in other words, not) — yelling and fearmongering rather than supporting their employee. It felt more like a used-car lot than a B2B professional services provider.

What’s worse, the sales manager was modeling institutionally accepted behavior and represented conduct that the company not only tolerated but exalted in a type of “alpha bro” sales environment that most of us would prefer to believe no longer exists. Forrester defines this clearly toxic interaction as part of a corporate subculture that not only takes on a character and personality of its own but also reflects on the organization at large. In fact, explain Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker in School Culture Rewired,” “the culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”

When we get questions about culture, people often frame it as “squishy” or “something that just evolves,” as if culture were like the weather — completely outside of our control. The reality is that we do know how culture is shaped and how it can be changed, and this is the focal point of our session, “Optimizing Sales Culture: How High-Performing Teams Get It Right,” at Forrester’s upcoming B2B Summit North America. We’ll discuss:

  • How culture is actually created (and changed).
  • Why sales cultures are unique within B2B organizations.
  • Three immediate actions to optimize your sales culture for high performance.

Organizations have the ability to understand and evolve their cultures (and subcultures such as hyper-aggressive sales teams) more than many leaders believe. Forrester analyzes the culture energy of companies around four dimensions — adaptability, purposefulness, commitment, and motivation — to help optimize outcomes for employees, customers, and the organization itself. Unfortunately, our research reveals that individuals in sales roles report universally lower cultural engagement scores compared with all other roles, meaning that B2B chief sales officers — who currently report 19.1% annual seller employee turnover — clearly need to find a way to manage smarter, not harder. Strong leaders don’t let toxic culture hold their organization back; they learn how it works and how to move it in the right direction.