The Role of Consensus in Sales Team Performance

Michael Ahearne, Scott B. MacKenzie, Philip M. Podsakoff, John E. Mathieu, and Son K. Lam
Journal of Marketing Research (JMR)
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Executive Summary
Many companies have recently shifted to a team-based selling approach. Although team selling might help firms achieve greater cross-selling and better solutions for customers, it is not always the case. Understanding sales team performance determinants is fraught with difficulty for at least two major reasons. First, team performance is a complex function of many different inputs, processes, and emerging cognitive and emotional states. Second, team members may not perceive team inputs, such as leadership empowerment and team processes, in the same way. This lack of team consensus can create problems or magnify them, whereas strong consensus might prevent problems or diminish them.

Drawing from the literature on organizational climate and climate consensus and using survey and archival data from a large sample of pharmaceutical sales teams, the authors find that leader empowerment behaviors and the quality of the interpersonal climate of the team can enhance the performance of a sales team by increasing the team’s sense of potency, which in turn leads to greater levels of effort and helping behavior. However, team consensus sets the boundary condition of these effects. Specifically, the impact of leader empowerment behaviors on a sales team’s sense of potency is greater when the team members agree about the extent to which they have been empowered by their leader and when team members agree about the team’s interpersonal climate. Surprisingly, teams with the least confidence in their ability to achieve their objectives are the teams that agree that their leaders do not engage in empowerment behaviors. Teams that work with leaders who do not engage in empowerment behaviors and agree on how to handle conflict in the team also had the least confidence in their ability.

Sales researchers have often failed to recognize the theoretical importance of variability in team members’ perceptions on sales team performance. This study demonstrates that the moderating effects of team consensus on sales team performance are both important and complex. Furthermore, although team consensus about how to handle interpersonal conflict is necessary to facilitate, if not regulate, the transformation of leader empowerment behaviors into a sense of team potency, the beneficial effects of good team processes on the team potency do not depend on the team having a consensus about whether it has been empowered by its leader. Methodologically, this study contributes to the literature by providing statistical procedures to operationalize team consensus and to rule out alternative explanations, such as scale unreliability and nonlinearity.

The study demonstrates that interpersonal climate consensus plays a critical role in determining whether the benefits of a leader’s empowerment behavior are realized. This suggests that managers need to focus greater effort on fostering a positive interpersonal climate in their sales teams. In addition, if a manager wants to empower a sales team to increase its sense of potency and ultimately its performance, he or she must try to increase the team’s consensus about its own empowerment and therefore should avoid treating team members differently. However, the findings also imply that it may not always be functional for managers to foster consensus about the extent to which they have empowered the team. Thus, managers should strive to increase consensus only if they truly want to empower their sales.

Biography
Michael Ahearne (PhD, Indiana University) is Professor of Marketing and Executive Director of the Sales Excellence Institute at the University of Houston. His research examines factors that influence the performance of salespeople, sales teams, and sales organizations. He is also a coauthor of a best-selling professional textbook, Selling Today: Creating Customer Value. The book has been translated into numerous languages and is currently used to teach professional selling in more than 30 countries. He has published in Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Management Science, and Journal of Applied Psychology, among several other journals.

Scott B. MacKenzie (PhD, University of California, Los Angeles) is the Neal Gilliatt Chair and Professor of Marketing in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. He is the author of approximately 60 articles on sales performance, leadership, advertising effectiveness, and research methodology, as well as a recent book on organizational citizenship behavior. Professor MacKenzie is a previous recipient of the American Marketing Association’s Harold H. Maynard Award and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s William A. Owens Scholarly Achievement Award and received an honorable mention in the Association for Consumer Research’s Robert Ferber Award competition. He currently serves on the editorial review boards of Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Consumer Research, and several other journals.

Philip M. Podsakoff (DBA, Indiana University) is John F. Mee Chair and Professor of Management in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. He is the author of approximately 65 articles on leadership effectiveness, substitutes for leadership, organizational citizenship behaviors, and field research methodology. He is also a coauthor (with Dennis Organ and Scott MacKenzie) of a recent book on organizational citizenship behavior. Professor Podsakoff is a fellow of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology and is a previous recipient of William A. Owens Scholarly Achievement Award. He is a former associate editor of Journal of Applied Psychology and currently serves on the editorial review boards of Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Journal of Management, and Leadership Quarterly.

John E. Mathieu (PhD, Old Dominion University) is the Cizik Chair Professor of Management and the Department Head of Management at the University of Connecticut. His primary areas of interest include models of training effectiveness, team and multiteam processes, and cross-level models of organizational behavior. He has conducted work with several Fortune 500 companies, the armed services, various federal and state agencies, and numerous public and private organizations. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association as well as the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology. He serves on numerous editorial boards and has guest edited special volumes of top-level journals.

Son K. Lam (PhD, University of Houston) is Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia. His current research focuses on salesperson behavior and performance. He also conducts research on corporate identity and organizational identification in the context of internal marketing and customer–brand relationship. His work on internal marketing and meta-analytical review of the service profit chain has appeared in Journal of Marketing and Journal of Retailing.

Journal of Marketing Research, Volume 47, Number 3, June 2010
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Michael Ahearne, Scott B. MacKenzie, Philip M. Podsakoff, John E. Mathieu, and Son K. Lam
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