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A cure for toxic salesperson syndrome

(MoneyWatch) Does your company have a salesperson that is too valuable to let go but too painful to keep?

Toxic sales people are easy to spot in the workplace. Co-workers call them tyrants, jerks, and worse. Most are emotional bullies who treat employees coldly, even cruelly. They are quick to assign blame and even quicker to hog credit for themselves.

But what is the impact of such bosses on company performance? Heavy, according to researchers who polled several thousand managers and employees from a diverse range of U.S. companies. Here's how employees respond to toxic co-workers:

  • 80 percent lost work time worrying about the offending employees' rudeness
  • 78 percent said their commitment to the organization declined
  • 66 percent said their performance declined
  • 63 percent lost time avoiding the offender
  • 48 percent decreased their work effort

Add to that the legal penalties levied against companies in connection with workplace bullying or the hidden cost of long-term disability if a bully makes his or her targets psychologically incapable of working again. And if word gets around that a company tolerates this sort behavior, the employer may have trouble hiring or retaining good employees.

Despite their adverse impact, toxic managers can be rehabilitated, says workplace psychologist Dr. Bruce Heller, author of the book "The Prodigal Executive." That is good news for any company with the kind of salespeople you can't live with -- and without.

"Toxic sales people can be saved because these are individuals who are extremely successful," Heller says. "Many of these executives could be compared to an elite athlete. They are highly skilled, talented, and energetic. They have passion for what they do and love the companies they're working for. They feel a sense pride in their work, have an insatiable curiosity, and want to learn more."

Unfortunately, many of them have never had coaching or leadership development. They were put into a sales leadership role because they were good at selling and often are eager for a mentor. As a result, many are ripe to learn some of these skills.

Heller has repeatedly found that toxic salespeople can change their personality, even if they have been that way for a long time. "Personality is malleable if there is a reward for doing so," he says, citing the example of one  president of a Fortune 500 subsidiary named Peter. "His level of intuition and ability to analyze problems were superb. He was also one of the best negotiators I have ever seen. Peter picked up subtle nuances and would instantaneously have the perfect retort ready."

But the executive never listened to staffers. He felt that because he was the smartest person in the room, listening to others was a waste of time because he already knew what was best. Not surprisingly, there was a mass exodus of top talent from the company.

"I coached Peter to listen using small steps," Heller says. "First, I just had him practice not talking for awhile while his subordinates spoke. Next we had him practice nodding while others spoke. Then, while going through the motions, something amazing happened. He actually heard what they were saying. 'I sure learned a lot more listening than when I was talking.' "

Remember the old joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a light bulb? Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.

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