Neuroscience in Sales: How a Positive Attitude Can Improve Your Performance

You know that always cheerful, chipper coworker whom you wish somedays would turn down the sunbeam while you’re grumpily reaching for your coffee and mulling over the giant pile of paperwork on your desk? It turns out, Sunny Sunshine may have the right idea. That’s the general consensus from neuroscientific research.

Attitudes Are Literally Contagious
In 2013, researchers from Harvard University and the University of California-San Diego studied whether attitudes in areas such as obesity, smoking, cooperation, and happiness are contagious within peer groups and social networks. They found that yes, attitudes are contagious in all the areas they studied.

What that means for salespeople is that there really is truth to the idea that our attitudes and demeanor influence customers and vice versa, and so we should strive to be positive in our interactions with clients. There is, however, an important caveat here. This doesn’t mean we turn into bubbly, chatty individuals. How we act should be tied directly to the persona of the buyer(s) we’re interacting with. After all, a cautious and skeptical customer might well suspect you’re fast-talking them if you’re prattling away. In that scenario, you’ll need to be positive within the confines of the conversation style that buyer prefers.

Conversely, a negative or toxic attitude can also spread like a team- and sales-killing disease. This is why effective managers won’t tolerate a poor or arrogant attitude, even from their top performers. No matter how much that star sales rep might bring in, it isn’t worth infecting and dragging down the rest of the team – especially in cases where the sales lost from team-wide negativity outweighs the money brought in from the great performer with the bad attitude.

How Positivity Impacts Learning
A Stanford University study published this January examined 240 elementary school-age children and discovered that those with a positive attitude towards math not only had better grades and performance, but activated the hippocampal region – the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. It’s the first study to demonstrate a neuroscientific basis for positivity improving learning performance.

The key takeaway from the study’s lead author, Lang Chen: “Based on our data… positive attitude… is as large as the contribution from IQ”. As a sales training company, we found this particularly important, as it verifies our belief that excitement for and buy-in to sales training leads to better outcomes from training sessions.

We Really Like Talking About Ourselves
One of our most commonly delivered pieces of advice is to engage in active listening and ask the right discovery questions of customers. As it turns out, the latter is backed by neuroscientific research. Harvard University professors Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell found that talking about yourself yields the same reward center activation as food and money. In fact, Tamir noted, “People were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves.”

So when a price inquiry comes up too soon in the selling process, acknowledge the customer’s question and shift the conversation back into discovery by providing them a window to talk about themselves. And as former FBI hostage negotiator Robin Dreeke notes, engage the customer without expressing or feeling any judgment towards the person, which helps you become a trusted advisor. The judgment-free approach is also a strategy that’s been used by teachers to encourage a more open, receptive classroom that fosters discussion and learning.

Developing That Positive Attitude
The question then naturally arises – how can you develop a positive attitude if you’re naturally neutral or prone to pessimism? What about if you’re an inherently upbeat person, but have had trouble maintaining your innate positivity? The answer to both lies in findings from two scholars at the University of Denver, which point out that cognitive reappraisal, or re-evaluating a situation to change its emotional impact, is the best way on a neurological level to combat adversity.

In this case, that means specifically using cognitive reappraisal to change your negative perception to a positive one. For example, let’s say your close rates have been in the tank for a while. This can cause a confidence crisis and breed negativity that might prolong the slump. One way to get around this is to tell yourself something like, “I’m in a bad streak right now. But this also provides me with an opportunity to find out where I can change things to become a more effective sales rep to my customers.”

Notice the specifics of that sentence. It isn’t merely an attitude adjustment – such as saying you’re due to end your poor run of form. It’s also phrased as an actionable statement – looking at what changes you can make in your selling approach to achieve the goal of becoming a more effective sales rep.

Other ways of developing a more positive attitude are instilling a sense of gratitude (which results in an increase in serotonin and dopamine) and engaging in mindful living that observes both the external world around you and your internal feelings – both within the present moment, rather than focusing on the past or the future as most people are prone to doing.

Positivity has numerous possible benefits to your productivity and performance on a neurological level. It can increase your learning and memory capacity and allow you to have contagious, enjoyable interactions with clients that focus on discovering their problems and how your products solve their issues. Reframing your life to be more positive isn’t easy – it can be awkward, in fact, and take a while to fully adapt – but the long-term rewards for yourself and your buyers is well worth it.