In many industries, it is a given that salespeople need business consultant skills to be effective. However, little has been done to try to define the level of consultant skills required. Some consider strategic-level discovery skills the definition of consultant skill. For others, understanding core operational strategy is required, and for others, the ability to conduct an executive-level sales call is the heart of being a consultative salesperson.Prismphil2

A study undertaken by Wilson Learning was an attempt to define different levels of sales and consultant skills and determine the relative business impact of providing these skills to salespeople. Salespeople in a large telecommunications company were divided into three groups; some received only basic sales training, some received initial consulting skills training, and the final group received advanced consulting skills training. The results showed that:

  • Salespeople with the initial consulting skills achieved a 22% higher sales quota than did salespeople with only basic sales skills.
  • Salespeople with advanced consulting skills were 21% higher than the initial consulting skills group, and over 49% higher than the salespeople with only basic sales skills.

The results provide strong support for the value of different levels of business consulting skills and the ability of an effective training process to transfer learning to job performance. By knowing their customers as a business and by understanding their customers’ success factors and processes, salespeople can position their offering in a way that links to their customers’ vision and strategy and, as a result, sell more.

Business Consulting Skills

A quick look at the literature on sales training shows many definitions for the term “consultant skills.” For some, being a consultant means having the ability to uncover the customer’s needs and expectations before presenting a solution, rather than just presenting features and benefits in hopes that the customer will respond. For others, sales consultant skills mean that salespeople have an in-depth knowledge of business processes and can hold their own in strategic discussions with CEOs and CFOs.

Such was the dilemma of a large telecommunications organization. They sold voice and data telecommunications services to other large organizations—a highly complex product in a highly competitive market. Their salespeople needed consultant skills, but having the right level of skills was critical to their success. Therefore, Wilson Learning partnered with this organization to study the relative impact of three levels of consultant skills on sales performance.

Levels of Consultant Skills

For the purpose of the study, we defined levels of sales/consultant skills and provided different groups of salespeople with training for each of the levels:

Basic Sales Skills These salespeople received sales skill training focused on questioning and listening skills for identifying customer needs, but not specific consultant skills.
Level 1 Consultant Skills These salespeople received training on the above skills plus specialized skills associated with managing the consultative process:

  • A structured process for establishing a consultative relationship
  • A model for probing clients on strategic issues and how to link those issues to the capabilities of their products
Level 2 Consultant Skills These salespeople received the Basic Sales Skills and Level 1 Consultant Skills training above, plus received specialized advanced consulting skills training:

  • Analysis of the impact of switching costs on a customer’s buying decision
  • How to analyze a customer’s value chain
  • How to determine industry and customer critical success factors
  • How to have a strategy-level discussion with senior executives

As a result, we had three groups of salespeople, two with differing levels of consulting skills. We expected that, because of the complexity of the company’s products and the strategic nature of the business relationship with their clients, the Level 1 consulting skills would benefit the salespeople, but that Level 2 skills were really required for high performance. Therefore, our expectation was that the group with Level 1 Consultant Skills would perform better than those with Basic Sales Skills, and that the salespeople with Level 2 Consultant Skills would perform the best of the three groups.

The Study

In total, 128 salespeople in a large telecommunications company took part in this study—approximately 40 salespeople in each of the three groups above. All of the salespeople represented the same types of products and called on the same types of customers. In addition, these groups were matched on a variety of performance characteristics prior to training to ensure that any differences after training could be attributed to their differing consulting skills, not to other factors.

The Performance Measurement

To prove the impact of consulting skills on the company, a strategically important performance measure was needed—not just a change in perception or attitude, but a real bottom-line outcome. Therefore, for this study we measured the percent of the sales quota achieved. The implementation of the training coincided with the organization’s fiscal year, so each salesperson started the study at zero and measures were taken every three months (each quarter).

Improving consulting skills would not have much value if performance improved for only a few months and then diminished. Therefore, for this study we collected the performance data not just for three months following the training, but over a full 12-month period. The data was grouped by fiscal quarters and represented the following periods associated with the study.

1st quarter

Pre-training Baseline period

2nd quarter

Immediate Post-training period

3rd quarter

Short-term Post-training period

4th quarter

Sustained Post-training period

By measuring performance in this way we accomplished two things. First, we have a before-training baseline to ensure that all three groups of salespeople were performing at the same level. Second, we have up to nine months of data after the training. This should be enough to demonstrate that the results are sustainable over the long term.


Percentage of Quota Achieved over Four Quarters

Results of this study provide convincing evidence that the consulting skills had a significant impact on performance. The graph at right shows the percentage of quota achieved for all four quarters for the three groups of salespeople.

Pre-training Baseline

All three groups had similar performance during the first three months before training began, as shown by the Pre-training baseline period in the graph. Thus, the groups were about equal at the beginning, and differences after that could be largely attributed to the training.

Immediate Post-training

Differences began to emerge immediately after the training. In the Immediate Post-training period, both the Level 1 and Level 2 Consultant Skills groups had achieved a greater amount of their quota than the Basic Sales Skills group. The Level 2 Consultant Skills group had achieved 11% more of their quota (43% of quota) and the Level 1 Consultant Skills group 4% more (36% of quota) than did the salespeople who were only given basic sales skills training (32% of quota).

Short-term Post-training

By the third quarter, four to six months after the training, the three groups were distinctly different. The Basic Sales Skills group had achieved about 50% of their quota for the year. While year-to-year comparisons are difficult to make, this was ahead of the previous year’s performance, possibly due to the new sales skills.

In contrast, the Level 1 Consulting Skills group had achieved 63% of their quota for the year. Clearly, the Level 1 consulting skills were having a positive impact on performance, with the Level 1 Consulting Skills group outperforming the Basic Sales Skills group by over 25%. Even more impressive, the Level 2 Consulting Skills group had achieved 73% of their quota by the end of the third quarter, exceeding the Basic Sales Skills group’s performance by over 45%, and exceeding the Level 1 Consulting Skills group by over 15%.

Sustained Post-training

By the fourth, and final, quarter of the study, the value and impact of consultant skills is clearly evident. The Basic Sales Skills group achieved about 86% of their initial quota. This was not uncommon for this organization, which at that time typically set initial sales quotas high relative to the previous year’s performance. Quotas were viewed more as “stretch goals” for salespeople, and 75–85% of quota achieved at the end of the year was typical.

In contrast, both consultant skills groups exceeded 100% of their initial quota. The Level 1 Consultant Skills group achieved about 105% of their initial quota, or about 22% over the performance of the Basic Sales Skills group. The Level 2 Consultant Skills group achieved 128% of their initial quota, about a 49% performance improvement over the Basic Sales Skills group and a 21% improvement over the Level 1 Consultant Skills group.


The results show that, for this organization, the Level 2 (advanced) consultant skills had the greatest and most sustained impact on sales performance. With just the Level 1 (consulting process) skills, sales performance was greater than the Basic Sales Skills group, but the level of improvement was relatively flat after the 3rd quarter (short-term post-training period).

In contrast, the advantage of the advanced consultant skills continued to grow through the final quarter of the study, relative to the performance of the Basic Sales Skills group. The advanced consultant skills group performed 34% better after the 2nd quarter, 46% better after the 3rd quarter, and 49% better after the 4th quarter. In other words, the value of the advanced consultant skills continued to grow through, and probably beyond, the end of the study.

The results suggest that the consulting process skills gave the salespeople a greater ability to discover clients’ needs at a deeper level. They were also better able to apply the consultative process to more effectively guide clients to a decision and an implementation of the solution. However, the value of these skills leveled off relatively quickly; the Level 1 salespeople lacked the advanced skills needed to understand their clients’ strategic needs and bring solutions that address their critical success factors.

In contrast, the salespeople with the advanced consultant skills had skills to analyze their clients’ underlying business objectives and bring solutions to the table that address strategic operational goals of the organization. Further, they were able to bring their analysis of the client’s strategic needs to the CEO and CFO and enhance their credibility with executives by addressing their needs and expectations. As a result, the advanced consultant skills allowed their performance to continue to accelerate throughout the entire 12-month period. In fact, the trajectory of the performance curve suggests that their performance continued to climb well beyond the 12 months of this study.

The consultant skills allowed salespeople to do a number of things that the basic sales skills did not prepare salespeople for. Consultant skills allow salespeople to establish a consultative relationship, uncover more strategic needs and expectations, develop deeper business-to-business relationships, link their product to the client’s underlying process and value chain, and more effectively conduct strategic-level discussions with senior executives. The data from this study provides strong evidence that consultant skills—and especially the more advanced consultant skills—are powerful tools for improving sales performance when addressing the complex selling environment.


Affinity for Ideation

Affinity Clustering and Ideation.LATERAL THINKING

  1. Evaluative OVOC
  2. Generative OVOC
    1. Affinity Clustering
    2. Using Affinity Clustering with OVOC Data
    3. The Ideation Session

1. Evaluative OVOC

For an evaluative OVOC, it can be straightforward to integrate your findings into your next prototype iteration or develop design ideas for offering improvements. Follow the following steps:

  • Print out your prototype or current solution: If your evaluation is of a prototype, print it in large format so you can hang it on the wall of your ideation room. For websites or apps, print each screen. If it’s a business process like order-to-cash use the as-is process map instead. If it’s a physical product, print a large format picture of it.
  • Print out your Roses, Thorns and Buds: Print out the output of your debrief sessions on post-its. For a small project you can hand write them, but for larger projects, purchase printable post-its and print them as outlined in the executing OVOC section.
  • Group the Roses, Thorns and Buds on the prototype: Stick each Rose, Thorn and Bud on the prototype printout next to the section each pertain to. Overlap duplicates to give yourself more space on the wall.
  • Create a separate affinity with the system-wide Roses, Thorns and Buds: As described in the last section, you likely have a set of Roses, Thorns and Buds that aren’t specific to a particular part of the offering, but pertain to system-wide or work practice observations. Use these to create a separate small affinity (se next section for details).
  • Address design changes: Gather your design team and have them read through the system-wide affinity first. Then, address each section of the prototype or process in turn, deciding on design changes that you will make. Record each design change. Since each Rose, Thorn and Bud is uniquely numbered via the template, you can optionally track exactly which customer data points motivated each design change.

 . Generative OVOC

Like OVOC interviewing itself, there are a variety of ways to analyze the data that is produced. And like OVOC, for our implementation is PMT, we are simplifying the analysis process for standardization and ease of teaching. We will adopt the following progression of tools:

  • Affinity Clustering
  • Optionally,Personas and Experience Diagramming
  • Concept Ideation


2.1       Affinity Clustering


Affinity Clustering (or Affinity Analysis) is one of the most versatile and useful data analysis tools in the HUE toolbox. Affinity is a process to meaningfully cluster observations and insights from qualitative research and draw out common themes. The affinity diagram organizes all of the key issues and visually shows the scope of the problems and opportunities.

The original idea harks back to the Japanese quality movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s – you may hear it referred to as “KJ Analysis” after Jiro Kawakita, who first developed it. Affinity features prominently in both the Six Sigma and Lean UX movements.

A sample section from a small affinity is shown here. Each of the post-its represents data points – in your case they will be individual Roses, Buds and Thorns from your OVOCs.

Note that the individual data points are grouped together and labeled by some aspect of their meaning that is important for this team: “Organization,” “Error Handling and Prevention,” “Language,” etc.  These are the threads of meaning that emerged in this analysis – as will become clearer below, this team did not start the analysis with these groups, the groups emerged from the affinity analysis process itself.

For small affinities having fewer than about 50 data points, this kind of single-level analysis works well. For larger analyses—especially analyzing OVOC data, the affinity needs extra layers of hierarchy.

An example portion of one of these multi-level affinities is shown here, taken from a UOP project on contractor use of UOP’s Schedule A engineering package. Here, each yellow post-it came from an OVOC debrief session. Note that each data point is uniquely identified with a user number and a note number within the debrief session (e.g. “U14-9” in the middle column is the 9th note captured in the debrief from User 14’s OVOC). Your notes will look the same, except each post it will be prefaced with “Rose”, “Bud” or “Thorn.” In this affinity, the individual first-level clusters are labeled by the blue post-it text. Likewise, the blue post-its are also clustered and are labeled by the second-level pink post-its. Typically, a third level is also included in these larger affinities.

You can think of the resulting affinity as a giant upside-down tree, with the third-level labels representing the trunk, the second-level pink labels representing large thick branches, the first-level blue post-its representing the small branches, and the individual data points as the leaves. The main point of the analysis is the threads and patterns that make up the first-, second- and third-level labels. These explicitly show the issues and opportunities contained in the OVOC data you collected and how they’re tied to individual groups of direct customer observations.

Note that the label post-its are written in first person. For example, as shown here, “We use the ‘live’ aspect of Smart Plant over the life of our project” is written as if it were the users speaking to us off of the affinity. Writing the cluster labels in the voice of the customer increases the impact for your stakeholders who will use the affinity for ideation later.

Using Affinity Clustering has a number of advantages. When constructed in teams, like the debrief meeting, it is a social innovation mechanism. The process of going through the analysis in a team setting often leads to innovative insights that are a product of both immersion in the data that’s been collected and the team interaction around it.

In addition, creating the affinity is inductive reasoning process that drives systemic thinking and helps the team identify opportunities that are not obvious. The affinity diagram is created from the bottom-up, and the threads embodied in the first-, second- and third-level labels emerge as part of the analysis process. Affinity is an exercise in recognizing patterns from individual points – inductive thinking. It is not a deductive exercise in sorting individual observations into predetermined categories. Encouraging inductive thinking is a key tool for helping teams identify and explore new opportunities.

Lastly, the affinity is a powerful tool for idea creation and communication. It plays a key part in grounding your later brainstorming in the actual customer observations as described in the section on ideation. It can also be used as an easily digestible summary of your team’s observations and findings for stakeholders. Many teams hang their affinity in their work areas or conference rooms as a handy reference to go back to over the life of their project.

2.2       Using Affinity Clustering with OVOC Data

Whether you are conducting a quick, small affinity or a multi-level affinity from OVOC data, the process for constructing the affinity is similar.

Follow these steps to create the affinity:

  • Reserve a room with enough space: You’ll need a conference room-sized space with plenty of wall space. Make sure you are allowed to tape or affix paper to the walls in this room. Take into consideration the number of team members and make sure the space is large enough to accommodate.
  • Creating an affinity with more than about 250-300 notes will take more than a day, so make sure you can leave your work in progress in place overnight.
  • Print out your Roses, Thorns and Buds: Print out the output of your debrief sessions on post-its. For a small project you can hand write them, but for larger projects, purchase printable post-its and print them as outlined in the section on Executing OVOC
  • Collect materials and prepare room: Make sure you have the following materials:
    • 1 roll of 36” wide white butcher paper
    • 1 roll of blue painter’s masking tape
    • 5-10 packages of 3×3 blue post-its for first-level affinity labels
    • 3-5 packages of pink post-its for second-level affinity labels
    • 1 package of green post-its for third-level affinity labels
    • 1 box medium blue Sharpies

To prepare the room, cover the walls with the butcher paper, tacking each sheet vertically with the masking tape. Overlap the paper an inch or two but don’t tape the individual sheets together.

Build the affinity: A three-level affinity is built in three stages. First, you will get all of the notes on the wall and grouped. After all of the notes are grouped, you will write first level labels. Then, you’ll cluster these first level labels and write second and third level

Stage 1: Get the notes up and grouped


Get the team together and hand each participant three sheets of post-its. Have each team member familiarize themselves with the sheets they have.

The first part of the affinity is done out loud. Start with any random note – a team member puts it on the wall and reads it off. Then, all team members look at their post-its to identify if they have another post-it that seems to be similar. When a team member finds one, s/he reads it off and sticks it directly beneath the first one. Repeat until no other post-its seem related. Then start a new column and repeat. Do this as a team and start slowly until the team gets the hang of it – it might take 20 or 30 post-its in 5 or 6 columns or so. During this start up period, make sure you’re placing one note at a time and the team member placing it reads it aloud.

At this point, do not worry about whether the post-it is a Rose, Thorn or Bud – just group them without regard to the type of note it is. You can look at the patterns of where the different types of notes end up later.


For small single-level affinities, this “out loud” mode can continue until all of the notes are placed. In this case, after all notes are placed, you can rearrange the groups until the team is satisfied, then simply label the groups. For fewer than about 50 or 60 notes, this is probably all you need to complete the affinity.

For larger affinities, you’ll continue the grouping portion, but once the team is comfortable, switch to more of an individual approach. Notes no longer need to be read out loud, and everyone can put notes up in tandem.

Some rules and guidelines for this stage:

  • Put up post-its in groups without too much justification or rationalization. This is where the word “affinity” comes in – it’s just like when you say you have an affinity with someone. You don’t know why, you just get along. We’re doing the same thing with the post-it notes at this stage.
  • No one owns a post-it or group, and anyone can move any post-it for any reason. In this way, groups constantly form and re-form. The team’s collective understanding gets baked in this way, and the clustering becomes truly owned by the team.
  • If two team members are moving a Post-it back and forth, stop and talk about it. If moving the Post-it helps to create a new group, then move it. If not, it doesn’t matter where the post-it goes, because ultimately the labels are what capture the new understanding anyway. There is no “right” place for any one post-it.
  • Hold off labeling the columns as long as you can – as soon as labels go up, our brains move too easily into category-sorting, deductive mode. For very large affinities, if you have to write temporary labels before you get all of the labels on the wall, go ahead and do so.

Stage 2: Write first-level labels


Labels tell the story of the data in the columns – they concisely capture the distinction that ties a group of notes together. And as described above, we write them in the first person, as if the customer or end-user were speaking to us from the affinity.  The next step is to write these labels.

At this point, you should have all the post-its on the wall, some in very long columns, some in shorter ones. Start by breaking very long columns up into groups of no more than 4-6 notes. Usually the longer columns that form in the first stage have several thoughts or distinctions buried in them. Break these out first, then write labels for the resulting groups.

Here are rules and guidelines for writing labels:

  • Common practice is to use blue post-its for first level labels.
  • Write labels in the first person, as if the customer or end-user were speaking.
  • Good labels create a story relevant to design.  The affinity is created to support design thinking. So the labels should be written from that point of view. Capture issues that are important to the user and that have design significance—in other words, that change the way you think about designing your offering.
  • Good first-level labels capture the issue that ties the individual notes beneath them together with enough detail so you don’t need to read the individual notes themselves. So don’t write “About” labels, like “This is about Smart Plant.” These labels force you to read the individual notes to find out anything interesting. Instead, move the meaningful distinction up into the label itself, like “We all use Smart Plant because we think it’s the industry standard.”
  • Aim for a maximum of 4-6 data points per labeled group. Singles are allowable if they carry a very significant point that is design relevant that you don’t want lost. But try to limit these “singletons” as much as possible.

It sometimes helps teams that are new to affinity to break apart the groups and write labels in pairs, but the usual practice is to do this individually. If you notice a teammate really struggling with a part of the affinity, you can switch sections with them.

Stage 3: Second- and third-level organization and labels


The next stage is simply a repeat of the clustering-labeling process, but this time with the blue first-level labels as the things to be clustered. In practice, this is much easier than the first level labels because many clusters that are similar are already near each other on the wall.

However, there is always the possibility that similar issues have arisen in separate areas of the emerging diagram. So your first step should be to have the team read through the first-level labels looking for clusters of blue first level labels that should go together but might be far apart on the wall.

After this, write second level labels that cluster and call out distinctions in groups of blue first level labels.

And lastly, write third-level labels that group entire sections of second level issues.

Many of the rules from first-level labels apply to second- and third-level labels, with just a few differences:

  • Common practice is to use pink post-its for second-level labels, and green post-its for third-level labels.
  • Aim for no more than 8 blue first-level groups per pink second-level label, and no more than 8 pink second-level groups per green third-level label.
  • “About” labels are okay at the second and third levels, as your constituents will already have read the first level labels.

Once your affinity is completed, you can capture the entire diagram in a Microsoft Word document. The biggest manual task involved is typing in the handwritten labels – cutting and pasting the individual notes goes surprisingly quickly. Once typed in, using Outline View, Word will allow the user to expand and collapse specific labels, and also allow display of the entire affinity at either first, second or third level.

2.2.3       Personas and More Advanced Models

Personas can also be constructed from your OVOC debrief notes and the affinity. There is a separate PMT Workshop and Handbook for Personas.

You should also use your OVOC data and affinity diagram to update the Touchpoint, Stakeholder and Experience Maps you created during the Kickoff Workshop. By this point, you have likely validated many of your predictions, but likely also discovered new touchpoints, stakeholders and details about both.

There are also a set of separate Contextual Design models that can be used, but we are not recommending them for PMT at this time.


2.3       The Ideation Session

This section gives a quick overview of Ideation – the process of creating and prioritizing ideas from your collected data. It’s a quick summary; for more information, there is a separate PMT Workshop for Ideation.

There are many ways to run an Ideation session, but this section summarizes a few important best practices.

Whatever method you use for Ideation, careful planning is crucial for a successful session.

Selecting a stakeholder team:


Make sure you have the right stakeholders in the room for the session. “The right stakeholders” means several things.

First, make sure you get the right expertise. This means having the right mix of development, engineering, finance, marketing, etc. to cover the kinds of ideas you’re looking to generate in your session. This mix will be project dependent. For example, an iterative project on a website will require design, development, marketing and IT, while an order to cash project might need credit, collections, sales, customer service, etc.

You also need the right personalities. Be realistic here. Ideation requires suspension of disbelief, an ability to withhold criticism until the proper time, and thinking outside the norms of current convention. There are those in your organization who can do this, and there are those who simply cannot. You know the difference. Take this into consideration.

Finally, you need the right political mix. Again depending on the project, make sure you have decision-makers who can commit to taking the next step, and make sure you don’t exclude people who can kill forward progress with a word.

Aim for no more than 8 or so people in an Ideation session. More people means it’s usually harder to manage and less creative overall. Resist the tendency for people to just forward the meeting notification to everyone they think might be mildly interested.

These constraints can all conflict, so realize that there is no perfect mix. But it definitely pays dividends to think about your invitations ahead of time.

Preparing the Room:


You want all of your OVOC data in the room, so like in the OVOC case, make sure you have a room with enough room for the participants to move around, enough wall space to contain your data, and that you can tape things to the walls.

At minimum, hang your affinity and personas (if you have them) on the walls of the room. Optionally, you can hang your stakeholder map, touchpoint map and/or experience maps as well, but usually affinity and personas work well by themselves.

Gather the following materials for your session:

  • 1 package of 3 x 5 yellow post-its per participant
  • 1 box blue medium Sharpies
  • Sticky flags or adhesive dots
  • A flipchart with flipchart paper


“Walking” the OVOC data:


The first step in Ideation is to immerse all of the participants in the OVOC data that your team collected. Do this by “walking the wall,” giving the entire team a chance to review the affinity and personas.

We take the time to read the data before brainstorming because we want the ideas that come out of the session to be grounded in the reality of what we found. Some people will still come into your session with their own pre-conceived ideas about solution direction, but at the very least you want to sensitize participants to what was found.

Give each stakeholder a pack of 3 x 5 post-its and a Sharpie to record design ideas, insights and questions while they read the affinity and personas. Write ideas, one per post-it, and stick them to the affinity and personas next to the part of the data that spawned the idea.

It should take your stakeholders about an hour to read through your affinity and personas, but this will obviously depend on the scope and number of your OVOCs.

These are best practices for “walking the wall” and immersing the team in the collected observations:



  • Try to create ideas that address higher-level labels in the affinity. It’s relatively easy to come up with one-off ideas that can “fix” any particular Thorn, but these low-level ideas are usually not high value, breakthrough innovations. Instead, try to think more systemically and drive your design ideas to address larger issues in your collected data. The affinity supports this holistic thinking explicitly – by driving up the label hierarchy, you’re forcing yourself to be more systemic with your ideas.
  • Do your reading in silence – think of this as an “art gallery” like experience. This respects the diversity of thinking types that you may have in your group. Some people think by talking, but many more need to concentrate to weave the threads together in their minds about what they’re reading and responding to. The brainstorming step that is coming next is where we discuss – right now it’s more of an individual exercise.
  • After the wall walk, summarize your team’s impression. Have a moderator stand in front of the flipchart and have team members offer the big issues they saw in the affinity and the personas.
  • In addition to summarizing the big issues in the customer data, you may also want to remind the team about the technological and business model capabilities that you can bring to bear as well. Technologies can be business-specific (e.g. “modular equipment,” “Aclar”) or generically available (e.g. “voice interface,” “Bluetooth”). Do this immediately after the customer data summary.

Brainstorming solutions – The diverge step:


Once your team is immersed in the data, you’re ready for brainstorming. Good brainstorming is a distinct two step process – the first is to create as many ideas as possible and the second is to evaluate and prioritize these solutions and narrow them down to the best and most actionable ideas.

The easiest and most straightforward way to brainstorm is to assign a moderator to record the team’s ideas. The moderator stands in front of the flipchart and records ideas team has. Standard brainstorming rules apply here – add to others’ ideas, don’t criticize or evaluate at this point, etc.


The PMT Workshop on Ideation also sometimes makes use of two other LUMA tools, Round Robin and Creative Matrix.

Prioritizing solutions – The converge step:

The simplest and most straightforward prioritization method is multivoting – LUMA calls this Visualize the Vote.

To run multivoting, follow these steps:

  • Give each stakeholder a small number of post-it flags or dots (typically 3 but can vary)
  • Tell them to decide on the ideas they think best meet these criteria: fit with the organization’s capabilities, fit with the organization’s business model, and fit with the organization’s cultural safe zone.
  • Once everyone has decided in their heads, each person places the flags on the flipchart next to the ideas they want to vote for.
  • Tally the votes.
  • Optionally, do successive run-offs.

Importance/Difficulty Matrix:

You can also plot your ideas on a flipchart against two axes. The horizontal axis represents how large an impact the solution would have on the customer experience, and the vertical axis represents how difficult that solution is to implement.

Exploring relationships between the ideas on this landscape can help the team prioritize solutions as well as create a roadmap for which ideas to address in which order.

More detail on Round Robin, Creative Matrix and Importance/Difficulty Matrix are given in the PMT Ideation Workshop.

Sales Management

Creating effective sales managers has been a long-term problem for many organizations. Promoting highly effective salespeople to the role of sales manager seems to fail as often as it succeeds, and there is little documented evidence of sales managers’ independent contribution to organizational value.IMG_6678

This paper reports on research Wilson Learning has completed regarding the role of sales manager skills in predicting the performance of a company’s sales force. Our research shows a 29% increase in top-line performance due to the skills of sales managers, independent of the skills of their salespeople. This research was done in cooperation with five separate organizations who, like you, share a concern for the impact and effectiveness of sales managers.

Sales as a Source of Competitive Advantage?

It is an all-too-common story. A top-flight salesperson is promoted to sales manager, but the organization soon discovers that the skills and perspectives that made this person a top salesperson are not contributing to this person’s success as a sales manager and may, in fact, be preventing this person’s success.

In our experience, the failure to make this transition from effective salesperson to effective sales manager is in part due to some critical situational differences. As the following chart shows, the environment in which salespeople tend to thrive is vastly different from the environment of a sales manager.

Salespeople: Sales Managers:
Have clear, direct measures of success—revenue, quota achievement, etc. Have vague or indirect measures of success (their salespeople’s performance)
Have clearly defined work parameters—execute on the sales process Either have a vague sales manager process, or no management process at all
Have a clear understanding of how they contribute organizational value—revenue Don’t have a clear definition of how they add value for the organization independent of the value contributed by their salespeople
Have clear periodic recognition of performance—wins! Have no clear periodic performance recognition—it all tends to come at the end of the year
Hate rules and spend much of their time getting around them to serve customers Are required to enforce the rules they once hated

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

As a result, many sales managers fall back on old sales behaviors. The common practice of compensating sales managers based solely on their salespeople’s revenue contributes to this tendency. They become “Super Closers” or take a “Heroic Manager” role and start managing client relationships at the first sign of trouble. These behaviors and others can undermine the motivation and credibility of their salespeople. This not only lowers the motivation of their high-potential salespeople, but also makes it more difficult to identify and remove ineffective salespeople. In such a scenario, sales managers don’t add unique value to the organization and may actually take away from their salespeople’s own feelings of value and success, decreasing their satisfaction and connection to the organization.

So, what is the value of sales management to an organization, and how can you quantify the impact sales managers have on organizational performance? Answering these questions was the purpose of this series of studies. From our research, we have concluded that a sales manager’s ability to lead does contribute uniquely to the performance and competitiveness of his or her organization.

Proving the Impact of Sales Management Skills on Performance

Over the past several years, Wilson Learning has had the opportunity to work closely with a number of organizations to uncover the sources of competitive advantage residing in their salespeople and sales managers. We have also had the opportunity to collect sales performance data for many of these companies to analyze the impact of sales management skills. This paper reports on five of those organizations to independently show that effective sales management skills are improving these organizations’ financial performance and customer success.

Working with organizations to identify a core set of sales management skills for creating competitive advantage is one thing, but demonstrating the relationship between these skills and business performance is another. Verifying this relationship is essential if these skills are to become part of an organization’s sales strategy. Therefore, we worked in partnership with five organizations who were willing to:

  • Provide us with access to all of their sales force, or a complete division’s sales force, for this study.
  • Share performance data for each of the sales groups involved. For this study, we wanted a performance measure that could be applied relatively universally, so we utilized percent of annual quota achieved.
  • Administer surveys both within their organization and with their customers to measure customer satisfaction and sales management skills.

We previously reported on our work with these five organizations in our study, Sales as a Source of Competitive Advantage. This report looks specifically at the effects of sales manager skills, while the previous report examined the effectiveness of salespeople. Because we measured both salesperson and sales manager skills in the same study, we were able to isolate the effects of each. We have reported on them separately to make each paper more concise and specific.

These clients view our work with them as one of their own sources of strategic advantage; needless to say, we cannot identify who they are or where they operate. However, we can indicate that they all compete in one of three vertical markets: life sciences, professional services, or financial services.

Assessing Sales Management Skills

The skill requirements of first-line sales managers will vary according to an organization’s market and sales process. In our research, we have found that effective sales managers don’t fulfill one role, but play four critical roles within the organization:

  • Sales Tactician/Business Operations Management: In the role of tactician, sales managers use their business management skills to operate their sales group like a business, managing the sales group’s P/L, creating forecasts, and setting priorities.
  • Sales Strategist: In the role of strategist, sales managers set a vision for the sales group, define a solution strategy for their market, and align strategic resources in the organization to support sales strategy.
  • Contributor: In the role of contributor, sales managers use their business and product knowledge and experience to make needed decisions, and use their creativity and innovation capabilities to align the sales group on common objectives.
  • Facilitator: In the role of facilitator, sales managers use communication, negotiation, and team leadership skills to manage a group of salespeople.

For these studies, we developed a 35-item sales leadership survey that determined the sales managers’ current performance on behaviors associated with these four skill clusters. This survey was administered as a 360-degree feedback system. In other words, input into each manager’s performance was gathered from the manager’s salespeople, executive manager, peers, and the manager him- or herself. This measurement system is called the Sales Manager Navigator because it combines measurement with development planning, coaching, and a results interpretation workshop to help sales managers “navigate” their way to improved performance.

Measuring Sales Performance

For most organizations, sales performance is multi-dimensional. That is, they view several outcomes as important to overall sales performance. To show the full effect of the sales manager’s skills, we measured three critical components of sales performance:

  • Sales Revenue: Given the wide diversity of the organizations, we examined sales revenue through the percent of quota each salesperson achieved. This allowed us to compare equitably across the five organizations, where there was a wide range of product costs and average sales price.
  • Customer Satisfaction: Many organizations consider customer satisfaction to be at least as important as revenue. In previous research, our measures of customer satisfaction have predicted things like customer retention, repurchasing, and sales per year. Thus, while independent of the revenue measure, customer satisfaction was measured as an indicator of long-term sales performance.
  • Salesperson Satisfaction: One of the key jobs of sales managers is to motivate and retain their high-performance salespeople. Therefore, we included in this study a measure of employee satisfaction that in previous research has been linked to outcomes such as salesperson retention, job tenure, performance, and other measures that indicate important business outcomes.

The studies were all conducted in the same way:

  • We created a survey that measured core sales management skills. The survey consisted of 35 questions that had previously been assessed as reliable and valid measures of these skills. (More detail on the validation of all the measures is available.)
  • The surveys were distributed as a 360-degree feedback system. That is, the surveys were completed by salespeople, sales executives, and sales managers and their peers.
  • The organization provided us with each salesperson’s quota achievement from the previous 12 months.
  • We distributed a customer satisfaction survey to the organizations’ customers to create a Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI). This CSI had been previously assessed as a reliable and valid measure of customer satisfaction.
  • Salespeople were also asked to complete an employee satisfaction survey to generate an Employee Satisfaction Index (ESI). This ESI had also been previously assessed as a reliable and valid measure of employee satisfaction.

To prove the link between sales management skills and the three measures of performance, we used a technique known as multiple regression analysis. In brief, the analysis results in a percentage (referred to as R2) between 1.00 and 0.00. This number indicates what percent of sales performance can be predicted by knowing the skills of sales managers. The higher the R2, the more impact sales managers have on sales performance.


Results of this study provide convincing evidence that a sales manager’s skills are a strong predictor of all three sales performance measures. That is, managers with stronger sales leadership skills had higher revenue, greater customer satisfaction, and salespeople who were personally more satisfied.

Percent of sales performance predicted by sales management skills

We cannot show you actual performance measures, both because this was confidential information and there was wide variety across the five organizations in the revenue data, but we can show the general pattern of results from these five studies. The graph shows the percent difference in Revenue, ESI, and CSI for sales managers with high skill ratings when compared to sales managers with low skill ratings. The high-skill sales managers had 29% higher revenue performance, 47% higher employee satisfaction (ESI), and 16% higher customer satisfaction (CSI) than did sales managers with low skill ratings.

It is important to note that this relationship to revenue and customer satisfaction is independent of salesperson skills. Said another way, we statistically factored out the effects that could be attributed to differences in the skills of the salespeople. Thus, what this graph tells us is that, in addition to the effect that salesperson skills have on revenue performance (reported in a separate study), the manager’s skills can add another 29% on top of that. It is no surprise that the effect was strongest on salesperson satisfaction (ESI), because this is the characteristic most directly affected by a manager’s abilities to lead. It is also interesting that the manager’s skills have a positive influence on customer satisfaction, even though managers have little direct contact with customers.

Percent of sales performance predicted by sales skills by company
Study Group Revenue Employee
Optical Devices 64% 64% 11%
Legal Services 27% 58% 25%
Business Insurance 24% 45% 9%
Architectural Services 20% 59% 11%
Building Control Systems 11% 9% 26%
Average 29% 47% 16%

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

Differences Across Organizations

There were also interesting differences among the organizations in how much the sales manager skills predicted the sales performance measures. As the next table shows, the proportion of revenue accounted for by the sales manager skills ranged from a high of 64% to a low of 11%. Employee satisfaction ranged from 64% to 9%, and customer satisfaction from a high of 26% to a low of 9%.

Thus, the sales process, industry, and market greatly affect how much impact sales managers’ skills have on sales performance. The impact can be very great in an industry like the optical devices company, but tends to be more moderate in some of the other industries. These results show the importance of analyzing the roles and responsibilities of sales managers before providing sales management training.

What is the Cost of Poor Sales Management?

These studies demonstrate the impact that effective sales leadership skills can have on revenue performance, customer satisfaction, and employee satisfaction. The value of effective sales management is in sharp contrast to the costs of ineffective sales management. A senior sales manager in one of the companies we work with made this comment: “In my experience, the cost of a single bad District Manager promotion is in the millions!” What are the costs of making a poor manager promotion decision? Here are a few of the costs you incur when you take an effective salesperson out of the field and make him or her an ineffective sales manager:

  • Loss from transitioning the customer base: Bringing in a salesperson to handle the manager’s former accounts always results in some stalling or reduction in revenue from that account.
  • Salesperson attrition: It does not take long for salespeople to see when a sales manager will not help them in building business, and the best salespeople will move quickly to either another sales division or another company.
  • Reduced salesperson effectiveness: When managers take a heroic approach, or provide limited guidance, the remaining salespeople are de-motivated and their performance drops.
  • Loss of good will in the marketplace: As salespeople leave and customers begin dealing with a string of temporary salespeople, they lose faith in the vendor.
  • Harder to hire: Replacing salespeople who leave becomes harder and more expensive as the reputation of that sales manager gets more widely known.

This study shows that effective first-line sales managers have a direct, and independent, impact on revenue. Also, because effective sales leadership leads to more satisfied salespeople and customers, this impact is sustained over the long term. The differences among the organizations studied further points out the necessity of analyzing the role of sales managers prior to implementing training and development. While the desired outcomes of effective sales management are clear, the specific “hats” that sales managers are expected to wear differ greatly from organization to organization. You need to first carefully consider your expectations of your sales managers and the skills and competencies required to meet these expectations.

Additional Resources

This additional article is available from Wilson Learning Worldwide:

Sales as a Source of Competitive Advantage

Business Performance, Employee Satisfaction, and Leadership Practices

Regaining and Regaining the Advantage: Advancing the Organization Through Sales and Sales Management

The Statistical Adequacy of the Sales Navigator


Perhaps the most common, and most important, forms of rapid thought we have are the judgments we make about other people. Upon meeting people, wecropped-prism-philosophy1.png make countless conclusions about what they are thinking and feeling, and make predictions about what they will do or say next. This is human nature and universal. However, when interacting cross-culturally, these conclusions can often be misleading and the assumptions we make can be wrong, sometimes with drastic effects. For example, consider the salesperson who misunderstands agreement as a buying signal, only to lose a sale that seemed a sure thing. Or the manager who concludes that he or she has made task objectives clear to an employee and later, after the deadline has passed, finds out that the employee has been waiting for more direction.

Wilson Learning Worldwide has had the great fortune to examine how people around the world make judgments about interpersonal preferences and style. In over 30 countries and cultures, our research shows that people who are skilled at identifying Social Style and adapt their behavior to make others feel more comfortable perform better and are more successful. We call this skill Versatility. For Wilson Learning, and many of our clients, Versatility is one of the key skills for success in business today.

In this report, we examine the similarities and differences across cultures in Social Style and interpersonal Versatility. The results of our research demonstrate that:

  • The four Social Styles exist and can be accurately measured in every country examined.
  • Cross-culturally, the Social Styles are similar in the behaviors and characteristics people use to define them.
  • Versatility, as well as being linked to success within the individual cultures, is also linked to characteristics associated with effective cross-cultural relations.

This report provides convincing evidence that interpersonal Versatility could be a key factor in the development of effective global business alliances, and may in fact be a determinant of the global effectiveness of different cultures.

What Is Social Style and Versatility?

There are two things almost all people know about their relationships with other people:

  • All things being equal, we really only “connect” with about 25% of the people we interact with.
  • It is easier to communicate with those with whom we “connect.”

When people say they “connect” with someone, they are referring to the similarity of their communication preferences and styles. We feel more comfortable with people who like to talk at the same pace we do, who are not too pushy or too pliable, and who want to get to know about us at about the same time we are ready to share that kind of information.

Nearly half a century of research has shown that people are divided equally across four primary communication styles. These four Social Styles are called Driver, Expressive, Amiable, and Analytical. When you find a person is easy to work with, it is often because you share the same Social Style. When a person seems difficult to work with, it is often because your styles are different.

Wilson Learning has also had the opportunity to test the validity of Social Style globally. Sometimes driven by our own desire to share the technology with other cultures and sometimes driven by the needs of our global clients, we have developed and validated the primary tool for measuring Social Style and Versatility, the Social Style Profile, in over 30 different nations on six different continents. Now we feel we have sufficient data in our Social Style Profile database to draw some meaningful conclusions about the global nature of Social Style and Versatility.

What the Social Style Profile Measures

The following is not a full description of the Social Style model; rather, it describes briefly the four dimensions that are measured by the Social Style Profile.

Assertiveness is defined as the way a person attempts to influence others’ actions and decisions. At one end of the scale, people are “Ask Assertive,” tending to use more indirect methods of influencing. At the other end, people are more “Tell Assertive,” preferring more direct methods of influence.

Responsiveness is defined as the way a person demonstrates his or her feelings and emotions when interacting with others. At one end of the scale, people are “Task-Directed Responsive,” tending to control their emotions and focus more on the task at hand. At the other end, people are more “People-Directed Responsive,” preferring to express their feelings and focus attention on relationships that affect the task.

Social Styles MatrixSocial Style is derived from the measures of Assertiveness and Responsiveness. Combining Assertiveness (Ask or Tell) and Responsiveness (Task-Directed or People-Directed) creates a matrix whose parts represent the Social Styles (Driver, Expressive, Amiable, Analytical). Social Style is a relatively stable characteristic of a person, meaning that it does not change much over time.

Versatility is defined as a person’s ability to temporarily modify his or her behaviors to make others feel that their concerns and expectations are being met. Versatility is measured separately from Social Style and, unlike Social Style, is a skill that can be learned. In fact, we have research indicating that learning Versatility will improve individual and organizational performance.

Versatility is the key skill of effective work relationships. People who have learned to recognize when others are uncomfortable or tense in the relationship, and adapt their Assertiveness and Responsiveness to reduce this relationship tension, have more effective interactions with others, resulting in more effective decisions and actions.

All of the dimensions are measured on a continuous scale. That is, no one person is all Ask or all Tell Assertive (or all Task- or People-Directed Responsive). Everyone demonstrates different degrees of Ask and Tell Assertive behaviors. Similarly, while the four Social Styles are a convenient way to describe information about communication patterns, there are varying degrees of style as well.

The Study

Since the inception of Wilson Learning’s Social Style Profiling System in 1975, well over seven million respondents have completed some form of the instrument. For this study, we used a data sample of 165,515 profiles. This sample was chosen to ensure that the analysis represented a relatively equal and unbiased global perspective. While we have profiled participants from over 30 countries, this analysis includes samples from only 20 of those countries because we wanted to ensure that each sample included participants from at least four different companies, that each profile was cross-validated by at least three observers, and that each sample was large enough from which to draw statistical conclusions.

Validity and Reliability

This report focuses on Social Style and Versatility results, not validity and reliability results for this global sample. For more detail on the validation process globally, contact Wilson Learning directly. However, for this report, it is important to address two key points:

Adapted, not Translated: The Social Style Profiles for each country were not literal translations of the U.S. English Profile. Rather, each profile was created to accurately reflect the meaning of Assertiveness, Responsiveness, and Versatility in each culture.

Independently Validated: Before engaging in this global data analysis, each Social Style Profile was validated within each country. That is, a questionnaire was developed, a pilot sample collected, and the data submitted to a range of validation statistics (including factor analysis, internal consistency reliability, inter-rater reliability, factor correlations, and demographic analysis). Finally, after validation, the accuracy of the Social Style Profiles was confirmed against observed behaviors.

Creating the Global Database

Once assured that each country’s profile was accurate and reliable, we were then able to combine the data and create the global Social Style database. This was done by examining each item that measures Assertiveness, Responsiveness, and Versatility across all 20 individual profiles and identifying items that matched in terms of meaning and statistical properties. We then standardized all of the items on a common measurement scale and conducted our analysis.

This part of the process assured us that the Social Style concepts, terminology, and statistical characteristics were consistent across the multiple cultures included in the study. For example, the meaning of a score on Assertiveness in one culture was equivalent to the same score on Assertiveness in another culture.


When interpreting the findings, it is important to keep in mind that the scores are based upon how others, in their own country, rated each other. This is not a case of “foreigners” responding to stereotypes of people from other countries.

Also, the actual score ranges are narrow because of the large size of each country’s sample. Since each country’s data set consists of more than 1,000 responses, the averages will be close together. This is the nature of averages in large data sets. However, that does not limit the usefulness of the differences we have identified. In all cases, there were statistically significant differences among countries on all of the dimensions measured.

Finally, to simplify interpretation, all of the scores were converted to a 100-point scale. This did not alter the relative scores among countries, but merely kept all of the interpretation across the measures consistent.

Global Social Style

Global Social StylesSocial Style is determined by combining Assertiveness and Responsiveness, so we will examine all of these dimensions together.

The averages for the 20 countries in the study are plotted on the following Social Style matrix. Location on the matrix does not mean that all individuals in that country are that style; however, it does show how people within that country tend to view themselves relative to other countries. For example, while the average score in Japan is classified as the most Ask Assertive and Task-Directed Responsive (that is, most Analytical), still only 28 percent of the individual participants in Japan were classified as Analytical, just slightly higher than the expected value of 25 percent.

While some of the findings of the research fit with common expectations, others might be surprising.

Many of the Asian country averages fall in the Analytical style classification. That means respondents in those countries tend to view one another as more Ask Assertive and more Task-Directed Responsive. In other words, they were more likely to be perceived as detail-oriented, deliberate, and well organized. Analyticals tend to respond to social overtures rather than initiate them and are more focused on task details, at least early in a relationship.

Many of the Western European and Mediterranean country averages fall in the Expressive style quadrant. That is, people in those countries tend to view each other as more Tell Assertive and People-Directed Responsive. Expressives tend to be perceived as fast-paced, outgoing, and enthusiastic in their interactions. Expressives take time to establish a relationship before focusing on the task at hand. Details tend to be less critical than the big picture for the Expressive.

Countries with more Amiable style averages include the United States, Canada, and Australia. This suggests that, on average, these cultures tend to emphasize cooperation and personal relationships. Amiables tend to see strong, trusting relationships as central to effective business interactions.

Finally, no countries tended strongly toward the Driver style, or high Tell Assertiveness and high Task-Directed Responsiveness. Both Sweden’s and Spain’s averages fall in the Driver quadrant but are closer to the center of the distribution and not at the extremes.

Global Versatility
Versatility Ranking Country Average Versatility Scores Uncertainty Avoidance Masculinity

Lowest — 1

Puerto Rico 64.9 NA NA


Spain 66.1 40 80


France 68.4 40 80


Japan 69.3 90 75


Germany 69.3 60 60


Great Britain 69.7 60 30


Colombia 70.6 60 75


Hong Kong 71.8 50 20


Singapore 71.8 45 5


Brazil 72.1 45 70


USA 72.7 60 40


Mexico 72.8 60 75


Australia 73.1 55 45


Italy 73.2 65 70


Thailand 73.2 30 60


Canada 73.6 50 45


South Africa 73.6 60 40


New Zealand 73.7 50 45


Finland 74.6 20 50

Highest — 20

Sweden 75.1 5 25

Correlation with Versatility

-.44 -.34

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

One of the most important findings of this study is how a culture views its own Versatility. Versatility is a person’s ability to temporarily modify his or her style-related behaviors to make others feel that their concerns and expectations are being met. Unlike Social Style, Versatility is an evaluative dimension. That is, being a particular Social Style is not good or bad—no one style is more successful than another, and no one style is better suited for a leadership position than another. In contrast, Versatility is associated with performance. Our research indicates that salespeople with high Versatility out-sell salespeople with low Versatility. Managers with higher Versatility have better performing work groups than managers with lower Versatility.

It is reasonable to think that a nation’s level of Versatility might have an impact on its ability to interact on the world stage and be a factor in how its businesses operate globally. The rank order and average Versatility for the different country samples is shown in the first three columns of the following table. It is important to note that, overall, the range of Versatility scores is fairly narrow. On a 100-point scale, all scores fell within an 11-point range. However, even this narrow range between countries is a statistically significant difference.

Looking just at the average Versatility scores column, the results show that Puerto Rico, Spain, and France had the lowest Versatility ratings. Again, that does not mean that all of the people in those countries have low Versatility. There are highly versatile people in all countries, but the averages reflect that there will be more low versatile people in the countries above the median line than in the countries below that line.

Predicting Global Business Effectiveness

Are countries with lower average Versatility more difficult to do business with globally? Our research indicates that individual people who are lower in Versatility are less effective in business, but can that finding be extended to a country’s average Versatility?

While there is no data of which we are aware that compares how easy countries are to work with globally, some insight on Versatility can be gained by comparing Global Versatility scores to other dimensions that have been known to differentiate cultures. One such set of dimensions are those identified by Gert Hofsted’s research on global values. Hofsted’s research is focused on value systems within countries, not intercultural interactions. However, certain cultural values have an impact on how countries view one another as potential business partners. As a result, some interesting comparisons can be made. These comparisons are shown in the following table.

A correlation statistic was used to assess the degree of association between Versatility and the dimensions of Masculinity and Uncertainty Avoidance. Correlations measure the strength of association between two dimensions. Correlations can range from -1.00 to +1.00. Correlations close to 0.0 indicate the two dimensions are unrelated. As they get closer to +1.0 or -1.0, the degree of association increases.

The following table also shows Hofsted’s dimensions of Uncertainty Avoidance and Masculinity. Uncertainty Avoidance focuses on the level of tolerance for uncertainty within the society. High Uncertainty Avoidance indicates the country has a low tolerance for uncertainty; low Uncertainty Avoidance indicates the country has less concern about uncertainty and has more tolerance for a variety of opinions. One would expect a country with low Uncertainty Avoidance to have high Versatility, and that is exactly what we found. The correlation between Versatility and Uncertainty Avoidance is in the moderately high range (r = -.44). The negative correlation indicates that low Uncertainty Avoidance is associated with high Versatility.

The second dimension, Masculinity, is defined as the degree to which a society reinforces the traditional masculine work role model of male achievement, control, and power. Again, you would expect a culture that values power and control would tend to have lower Versatility; again, that is what we found. In this case, the correlation between Versatility and Masculinity is moderate to moderately high (r = -.34).

Thus, a country’s low Versatility is associated with characteristics that might make global interactions more difficult—a low tolerance for varied opinions and uncertainty and a high need for control and power. The difference is that Hofsted’s dimensions are considered cultural traits, unlikely to be changed through learning and development. In contract, Versatility is a learnable skill. Companies operating in countries with lower Versatility may want to examine the level of interpersonal friction that occurs, especially cross-culturally, and take steps to increase their Versatility as a way to grow the economy of their countries.

Changing Global Versatility

In our current global environment, effective cross-cultural work relationships are critical. Global work teams have become commonplace, and while language and cultural differences create their own barrier, a potentially greater barrier is differing expectations about interpersonal communication. At a time when world tensions are high, every individual, organization, and country would be well served to seek out any mechanism possible that will ease tensions and create effective communications.

Global Versatility is not a trait or value of a country. Rather, it is a learnable skill. We have found that if people follow a simple process, they can improve their interactions globally, create a more comfortable work environment, and, as a result, conduct business and social interactions more effectively and more productively.

The first step in becoming more Globally Versatile is recognizing that it requires a mindset shift and a skill set shift. Global Versatility starts with the desire to make people from other cultures and countries more comfortable in their interactions with you and a new awareness that what makes you comfortable in interactions may make others uncomfortable.

Following the mindset shift comes the skill set shift. We have found that the primary skill of Global Versatility can be summarized in a four-step process:

  • Anticipate: By knowing the other person’s, and your own, dominant culture, you can anticipate potential barriers to communication, while avoiding the tendency to stereotype. Remember, just because one Social Style might dominate a culture does not mean everyone is that style.
  • Identify: The next step is to clarify whether the anticipated behaviors are real. Observe the other person for indications of his or her style. Is the person’s behavior more Ask or more Tell Assertive? Is the person more People-Directed or Task-Directed?
  • Reflect: After identifying another’s Social Style, reflect on what will make him or her more comfortable and the type of adjustments you need to make to increase the other person’s comfort level. Consider both Social Style-related behaviors and culture-specific behaviors.
  • Modify: Then, make an effort to adjust your Assertiveness and Responsiveness behaviors. Modifying is more than just adjusting; it also requires observing reactions. Did your efforts to modify your behavior have the intended effect? If not, re-examine your behavior. Did you adjust too much or too little? Did you modify the wrong behaviors?

This research suggests that one important mechanism for improving international relationships is Global Versatility. By understanding and identifying the Social Styles of others, learning new behaviors for adjusting Assertiveness and Responsiveness behaviors, and continuously improving Versatility with others, individuals can work more effectively cross-culturally and can improve organizational and individual performance. These findings will enable companies to use the concept and skills of Global Versatility to move across cultural boundaries, work more effectively globally, and better serve customers around the world.

Top 10 Tips for Remote Work Teams

As companies search for more productive and more cost effective ways of getting work accomplished, there has been an explosion of virtual work and project teams. As a result, it has become imperative for people to learn how to work together across boundaries of space, time, and yes, cultures. Driven by the need to leverage expertise located in different parts of the organization, companies are increasingly reliant on geographically dispersed virtual teams to plan, make decisions, and take action on critical business issues.Prismphil2

When such teams function at optimal levels of productivity and efficiency, they are actually a source of competitive advantage for their companies, bringing together a variety of different perspectives and experiences that have high value for innovation and problem solving. On the other hand, teams working remotely face unique challenges in communicating and collaborating efficiently and productively. Research conducted by Wilson Learning a few years ago highlights this problem. Our research showed that the most productive teams are those with a high level of diversity and high levels of communication skills. However, if the communication skills are lacking, the highly diverse teams are the lowest performing teams. Thus effective teamwork and communication skills for virtual teams are even more important than for other teams. You can’t walk down the hall or into the next cubicle to discuss a problem if some people are in New York and others are in Santa Cruz or even Bangladore. As a result, without critical skill sets, virtual teams will fail to fully engage team members, establish clear goals and standards, and establish the processes necessary to get things done.

Here is a “Top Ten” list of strategies that will help your virtual teams perform at the highest possible level and take full advantage of members’ varying skills, knowledge, and capabilities.


Team performance depends on a foundation of trust. Without it, team members are reluctant to share information, offer support, and may hesitate to rely on others to keep commitments and follow through on tasks.

To build a sense of trust, virtual teams need opportunities to develop social rapport, especially in the early stages of the team’s work. Creating time for team members to identify common values, establish credibility, and foster a sense of trust is critical for virtual teams. For example, we have seen virtual teams engage in online games together as a way to establish relationships and occasionally hold meetings in “immersive” virtual environments such as Second Life, as a way to establish and build trust. The use of social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook can also be useful to help team members become familiar with one another in a way that fosters trust and confidence.


Even more than co-located teams, virtual teams need a sense of “teamness” based on a strong belief in a shared purpose, common inspiration, and commitment to the team’s goals. In a dispersed team, there may be individuals who are working alone out of a home office or who are otherwise the only member of the team at their location. Under these circumstances, it is easy for them to feel isolated, not part of the team, and “out of the loop.”

The team’s cohesiveness will be greatly enhanced if their purpose and goals are clear and they have frequent reminders of why they are together and what they are working toward. Managers can also help build team identity by providing recognition for team and individual achievements and opportunities for team sharing and celebrating successes.


Used correctly, contemporary communications tools can be powerful and effective—offering interactive, engaging ways to share information and stay in touch. Managers of virtual teams need to become familiar with three principle technologies. First, there are online meeting sites (such as GoToMeeting or WebEx) that allow virtual team members to do real face-to-face meetings online. Second, there are online project management sites (such as SharePoint or LiveLink) which allow virtual team members to share and store documents, plans, reports, etc. Third, there are emerging technologies, such as Google Wave, which allows multiple people to work together on presentations and documents simultaneously.

To gain all these benefits, however, team members must be reasonably skilled and comfortable in using the tools, and the technology needs to be readily available and reliable. All team members should have opportunities for training and hands-on practice, and have access to technical support whenever they need help. If there are technophobes in the group, practice and feedback from an experienced mentor will help them develop a greater level of confidence and comfort in using the technology and increasing their efficiency and productivity.


Like any other team, virtual teams must develop a feeling that all team members bear equal responsibility for achieving the team’s goals and have clear expectations for accountability for their individual tasks. While this will often come naturally for traditional teams, virtual teams need tools for tracking individual and team accomplishments. Of equal importance are periodic opportunities to celebrate and be recognized for team achievements. Non-virtual teams will often do this informally, in hallway meetings for example, but virtual teams have to build this into their scheduled activities.


Team members in a virtual team—more than in other teams—need to be able to exercise effective self-leadership, taking responsibility for completing individual work and participating in all activities of the team. Nonetheless, an experienced team leader can be a critical resource in helping the team stay on track and serve as a liaison with the team’s sponsors. This leader can anticipate the challenges of working virtually and help make sure communications are clear and that all members of the team are fully “in the loop” and participating as they should be in team meetings.


Research from the Sloan School of Management demonstrates that virtual teams using well developed task-related processes to increase work coordination and task-related communication tend to outperform those that do not. Processes for tasks such as setting goals, making plans, solving problems, assigning specific work roles, and measuring results help the team function efficiently and effectively.

This can be especially important for crosscultural virtual teams. Different cultures have different expectations concerning processes and procedures. Therefore, it is important that global virtual teams clearly communicate the process being followed and provide training and assistance when team members are new to the process.


Social interactions are the glue that holds the team together as a cohesive unit. Although task-oriented processes are essential to the team’s effectiveness, members of a virtual team need to be highly competent in managing the give and take necessary to exchange information, provide mutual support, and make course corrections when necessary.

When non-virtual teams meet, it is very common that the five to ten minutes before or after the meeting is spent in casual, non-work related conversations that build social relationships in the team. However, this is much rarer in virtual teams. Effective virtual team leaders understand that it is important to build this time into the process, helping team members understand and appreciate diversity in interpersonal style, model versatility in adapting to others’ preferred communications styles, and know how to give and receive feedback. Team leaders and managers should make sure team members have these capabilities and, where needed, help the team build on and enhance their communications skills.


Every team needs the ability to make decisions and reach agreement as a group. For a virtual team, this is even more critical, as the members may not necessarily share any established common practices and may have very different experiences with decision making. Team members need to understand the different ways that decisions can be made and know how to reach agreements on issues, such as the right solution to a problem and how to break down a task and assign work. An established team decision-making process and tools will help the team avoid getting stuck when a decision needs to be made, and ensure that the decisions made are high quality and represent the best thinking of the entire team. Not every decision is made in the same way; it is important to communicate which decisions are collaborative versus which decisions are leader driven.


Increasingly, virtual teams are dispersed not only across geographical boundaries within the U.S.A. or North America, but across international boundaries that span the globe. A lack of global awareness and cultural sensitivity can undermine almost every other aspect of the team’s work, making it difficult to establish trust, make decisions, and carry out tasks in a coordinated, efficient way.

To work productively and cohesively across cultural boundaries requires that team members have some insights into the cultural dimensions that can affect interpersonal behaviors and preferences. This might include awareness of differences in how various cultures perceive business relationships, view power and authority within business organizations, and value the role of the individual versus the community or group.

Team leaders and managers can help by paying special attention to how the team is interacting and providing opportunities for team members to discuss and resolve issues related to different cultural assumptions or values.


Regardless of how well the team organizes its work or how well team members communicate, there is a high probability for occasional conflicts, either between individual team members or across the entire group. Conflicts within a virtual team can seem even more intractable and disruptive than they do when people are able to sit down and talk through the issues.

Virtual teams present special concerns regarding conflict. Because much of the communication is through e-mail or over webcast meetings where body language is missing, there is greater chance that information or intention will be misunderstood. We have known cases when a team member wrote an e-mail with the expectation that it would be received positively, only to have other team members see it as negative and potentially offensive.

To make sure conflicts can be recognized early and addressed proactively, team members need to understand what kinds of issues can lead to conflicts and recognize how unresolved conflict can get in the way of achieving their goals. They also need to know how to separate the issues from the people and reach a solution without letting emotional responses become a barrier to mutually agreeable resolutions.

Whether your virtual team is dedicated to customer service or R&D, or whether it is dispersed across the globe or only across a single state, these ten tips can enhance productivity, team member satisfaction, and effectiveness. Even a team that is working remotely out of necessity rather than choice can become a powerful asset if the group has the tools, technology, and skills required to bring their varied experience and knowledge together to achieve outstanding results. By Michael Leimbach, Ph.D., Wilson Learning Worldwide, and Carl Eidson, Ph.D., Wilson Learning Corporation

Social Style Versatile

“The more I learn about myself, the more I am able to understand others, the more I am able to bridge the gap between us.”

How has your organization responded to falling consumer demand and slower sales in the current economic climate? If yours is like most, you’ve probably experienced a variety of cost cutting measures: layoffs, downsizing, restructuring and reorganization, and hiring and pay freezes. While these kinds of changes have been necessary for survival, they can wreak havoc on overall performance in unexpected ways. Why? Because there is an inevitable increase in stress, anxiety, and relationship tensions experienced by employees who must rapidly adapt to changes in reporting relationships, work assignments, and ongoing concerns about job security. Managers suffer from similar stresses as they are asked to fill in gaps left by layoffs, do “more with less” as budgets are slashed, and take on new work teams or individual employees as a result of restructuring and downsizing. These tensions have a direct impact on organizational performance.

Although organizational leaders can do little to control the external economic factors driving the need for these internal changes, something can be done to alleviate at least one of the biggest causes of day-to-day stress in an uncertain and changing work environment—the relationship tensions that result from adapting to restructured work teams and unfamiliar colleagues and managers. This relationship tension, unless addressed, will breed conflicts, misunderstandings, and overall failures to communicate that weaken performance just when the company needs the highest levels of performance to attain the results required to thrive in a down market. Yet, there is a powerful tool available that can reduce these barriers to productivity and therefore profitability—Versatility.


Versatility is defined as the ability to understand differences in communication preferences and to adapt to make others more open and receptive—creating more effective and productive relationships. Versatility is a skill that can be learned, and people who have it find it far easier to work together with others toward shared organizational goals.

To understand Versatility and how it can affect relationships, consider people with whom you have regular contact. Do you know someone who is “too reserved” for your taste? Is there a manager, coworker or family member who seems to you to be “too opinionated,” “too emotional,” or “too willing (or unwilling) to compromise?” Chances are your reactions to these people are an indicator of differences in Social Style—how we habitually communicate and interact with others. When you find it easy to communicate and work with someone, there’s a high probability you share the same social style. When your communication is difficult, it is often because of unrecognized social style differences.

The Social Styles Matrix

Wilson Learning’s social style model defines four primary communication styles—Driver, Expressive, Amiable, and Analytical.

As the model shows, the four styles vary in terms of behaviors reflecting the dimensions of Assertiveness (Tell) versus Responsiveness (Ask) and Task versus People orientation. Drivers and Expressives tend to be more Tell oriented, while Amiables and Analyticals are more Ask oriented. Analyticals and Drivers are more Task oriented, while Amiables and Expressives are more People oriented. Because about 25% of people fall into each of these four categories, you likely share a social style with only about 25% of the people you meet. What are the consequences when we can’t adapt to the other 75%?

Consider the communication challenges faced by a non-versatile manager who has a different social style than three-fourths of her employees. An Amiable employee will not be comfortable with a Driver manager who seems too focused on tasks and unconcerned with personal relationships. Analytical employees don’t like to be told things they already know—but at the same time they don’t want gaps in information a manager could have provided. These kinds of misalignments create the potential for friction, misunderstanding, and lowered productivity.


For most of us, interpersonal behaviors and preferences are habitual and largely out of awareness. Consider this scenario: A Driver, who has a more “tell” oriented style, may want to “cut to the chase” quickly. He may not even realize the source of his impatience with an Analytical who needs to ask more questions and gather more data before taking action. As the situation progresses, the Driver may push harder for action while the Analytical employee goes into “back up” for her style—withdrawing and becoming less and less responsive. The resultant mutual frustration and distrust means that projects take longer and critical information is lost. Or in another example, an Expressive employee may be put off by a manager with a strong task-oriented style who doesn’t show sufficient appreciation of the employee’s wish to explore and discuss a variety of creative options before making a decision. The result—a less creative approach to a critical solution.

Versatility comes with the recognition that people do have different styles and that each has unique strengths. Once people know their own style and understand style differences, they can learn how to modify behaviors to make it easier to exchange information and work together to make decisions in a way that is more effective for the whole team. Suppose a manager has several Amiable employees. The manager can make an effort to show a personal interest in them and offer more guidance, support, and recognition than they might provide to experienced Driver employees, who want the freedom to solve problems themselves. When making decisions, managers can adapt to different expectations and needs based on their recognition of employees’ styles. Expressives want managers to involve them in a decision when it affects the whole group, and Amiables like to have the group involved in brainstorming and problem solving. On the other hand, Analyticals are not as interested in group decision making and typically prefer to be involved only when decisions or actions affect them directly.

Over time, as both managers and employees develop higher levels of Versatility, they can quickly recognize the indicators of different styles and adapting to them becomes an integral part of how they communicate. Our research shows that a highly versatile individual is perceived as an effective communicator—someone who has “good people skills,” a trusted leader, and is a very successful negotiator, salesperson, and manager.


Companies can experience dramatic, measurable improvements in performance when their people learn how to adapt to others’ social styles. In one study, building versatility skills yielded a 52% improvement in the ability to identify styles and recognize back-up behavior—the “fall back” behavior of each style when the individual is stressed. In the same organization, 46% of employees reported a moderate to large improvement in work productivity. As one manager reported, “I’ve been more sensitive to my driver/driver style and the style of others during [coaching] sessions, and as a result, I believe the sessions have been more productive and conversation/feedback has been freer flowing.”

Depending on your company’s industry, product offering, and market, increased versatility may make different kinds of contributions to the improvement of business results. What are the critical issues that are most important in your organization right now? For companies that have downsized and reorganized, a versatile leadership team can more quickly adapt to the needs of employees who have moved into new roles. Additionally, versatile employees can shorten the time it takes to become productive in reconfigured work teams, whether they are working together virtually or at the same site.

Organizations challenged by price cutting competition can better keep customers and expand their business by building stronger relationships with current customers and developing a wider range of new business partnerships. Companies seeking to increase the satisfaction and loyalty of current customers will find that versatile customer service employees are more effective communicators and problem solvers in their customer interactions. While there are multiple ways to improve communication in a given situation, the single most important factor for enhancing communication effectiveness across the board is Versatility. As more leaders are required to take on greater responsibilities for more employees in today’s business environment, and companies are fighting to retain customers and grow market share in the face of ever tougher competition, building this kind of capability provides a real competitive advantage for the individual and the company as a whole.


5 Cultural Dimensions that Must Be Managed to Ensure Global Effectiveness

Is Your Organization Ready to Go Global?

The most critical global developments for businesses include the increase in economic activity in emerging markets, the free flow of information across the globe, and increasingly global labor markets.

The implications are clear: To grow and flourish in a global economy requires building strong business relationships across international boundaries. “Like it or not,” one expert points out, “knowledge of the world is no longer a luxury.” According to a McKinsey survey of executives around the world, the most important strategies for capturing growth include building a local presence, developing partnerships and joint ventures with local businesses, and recruiting talent from emerging markets. American companies must compete with companies around the world, whose leaders may be far more knowledgeable about U.S. culture than American leaders are about theirs.

For some years now, U.S.-based corporations have been acquiring businesses based abroad, establishing local branches in other countries, and assembling virtual teams to work across international boundaries. Even so, too many businesses are still unprepared to work with customers and coworkers from different cultures. The most common problems—misunderstandings and communication breakdowns—have a significant impact in terms of lowered productivity, lost sales, and unsuccessful product launches. “Effective cross-cultural skills are critical,” according to the global program manager for a large telecommunications manufacturer. “We are a global organization. We have clients around the world requiring global support and many cross-cultural project teams. If we can improve the global effectiveness skills of our team leaders and members, this will have tremendous impact on our bottom line.”

What Can the Organization Do?

To build global competitiveness, U.S. companies need to recognize the special challenges of doing business globally and step up efforts to ensure employees acquire global awareness and cross-cultural communication skills. This means raising consciousness about the differences that create discomfort and confusion. This is critical, since the most common problems are caused by norms and behaviors that seem so natural to us that they are effectively out of our awareness.

To become more adept at communicating across cultures, people need to become comfortable with the nature of differences. Then they need skills that enable them to communicate and relate effectively.

The 5 Cultural Dimensions That Make the Biggest Difference
The Five Dimensions

People can gain insights into other cultures by understanding five key dimensions where cultural differences are likely to be the most profound and where knowledge can have the biggest effect in reducing culture shock.

1. Task and Relationship

One of the most noticeable differences between cultures has to do with how people approach the development of relationships. Some cultures can be characterized as more task/achievement oriented, while others are more relationship oriented. Westerners, and Americans in particular, tend to be more task/achievement oriented, with a shorter-term focus that creates a sense of urgency about getting things done and moving forward. In our view, “time is money,” a commodity that can be “saved” or “wasted.” In a typical American meeting, the task comes first. Socializing can come after the meeting. In contrast, relationship-oriented cultures will organize activities and priorities around the people involved, rather than around the clock. In a relationship-oriented culture, people are not driven by time. They would see themselves as flexible—the person, rather than the task, dictates the event. Social aspects come first, as a prerequisite to task achievement.

Even at the level of individual meetings and appointments, relationships can be affected by these different perspectives. For example, Americans take punctuality as a sign of respect for the other person’s time. Yet in a relationship culture, starting some time later than the formally stated hour is the norm, and arriving early or even “on time” might appear pushy, too impatient, or even inconsiderate. This difference in the “unwritten rules” can undermine the mutual trust and respect on which effective business relationships are founded.

2. Power Distance

This dimension has to do with the extent to which individuals in the society accept power inequality based on each person’s place in a hierarchy. This dimension influences degrees of autonomy and decision-making processes. Historically, American culture leans toward egalitarianism, favoring less distance between those at the top of a hierarchical structure and those at the bottom. Our traditions abound with stories of the ordinary employee speaking “truth to power.” In other cultures, deference to authority is expected, and it would be considered presumptuous and even shocking to offer an independent opinion or to contradict a superior.

With the assumption of team member equality and shared responsibility, Americans may find it mystifying when team members from another culture fail to offer opinions or share information. Their counterparts, on the other hand, may feel very uncomfortable when dealing with a company that values participatory leadership. If they are placed in a team made up of people with perceived differences in rank, it would seem inappropriate to put their opinions forward, while Americans may appear in their eyes to be disrespectful of hierarchical boundaries and prerogatives.

3. Uncertainty Avoidance

Cultures also vary considerably in terms of their tolerance for risk and uncertainty. Businesspeople from a culture that is high in uncertainty avoidance will prefer to operate within a narrower sphere bounded by rules and constraints designed to reduce risk. People from a culture that avoids uncertainty may feel very uncomfortable in unstructured situations. They may be reluctant to take action and will want to be reassured by clear rules and safety measures that reduce risk.

When people from an uncertainty avoiding culture meet people more accustomed to higher levels of uncertainty, friction can ensue. One group may perceive the other as hidebound or too timid, while the other is perceived as reckless and too willing to take unacceptable chances. Awareness of this deeply ingrained difference could allow improved communication and accommodation to meet the needs of both parties.

4. Individualism/Collectivism

What happens when workers from a highly individualistic culture interact with colleagues from more collectivist cultures? Americans, in particular, see the individual as loosely connected to the larger group—whether family, business organizations, or social groups. In other societies (as we have learned in a long history of doing business in Asia, for example), individuals are considered to be tightly connected to the larger social and business organizations.

These differences can generate misunderstandings and frustration when it comes time to make business decisions. Collectivist groups will be reluctant to directly address conflict or differences of opinion, and are most comfortable with consensus decision making. Westerners, on the other hand, will be more at ease with independent opinions and decisions. They may find that decisions they thought were final are still up in the air, while other groups may feel they are being pressured or bulldozed into a decision before they have reached the consensus they feel is needed.

5. Context Communication

The final dimension of culture concerns what is referred to as “context communication.” People in Western business organizations tend to prefer linear, direct communication that “nets it out.” In other cultures, the norm is to be more indirect, draw inferences, and present information in a more metaphorical fashion.

An American might expect to send an e-mail, get a response, and consider the transaction to be complete. If working with people from a high-context culture, that e-mail might be all right in certain situations for conveying information, but will be completely ineffective for building relationships or resolving conflicts. An e-mail sent for such purposes might not even receive a reply, possibly creating more conflict.

Insight Brings Behavior Change

As profound as these kinds of differences are, they often go unrecognized. Unlike spoken language, they stem from deeply held beliefs and values, and the “rules of engagement” are unarticulated even by those within the cultural group. By raising these differences to the level of conscious awareness, people can change behavior, becoming more adaptable, less judgmental, and more skilled at changing their habitual approach to accommodate cultural differences.

In one study, groups receiving global awareness training showed significant changes in behavior compared to those not trained, especially in the skill areas of avoiding labeling of colleagues/clients based on culture; modifying the style of meetings, e-mails, and phone calls to match cultural expectations; and adjusting to how others build relationships. In fact, in this study of high-potential managers, 91—100% indicated that global awareness training:

  • Increased retention of cross-cultural customers and employees
  • Resulted in improved efficiencies and cost savings
  • Helped them keep their projects on schedule and within budget

Overall, 100% of the managers agreed and 29% strongly agreed that global awareness training made them more effective in their job.

The dimensions discussed here have a demonstrably large impact on every aspect of a business relationship, from how agreements are reached, to how and when actions are taken, to how to conduct ongoing communication.

Employees of companies doing international business can benefit from greater awareness of these dimensions, and from building skills that will help them create mutually satisfying business relationships regardless of where they are in the world.

Individual Effectiveness

The struggle is the same in all organizations: the brilliant engineer who has the expertise to create major advances in the organization, but is unable to communicate clearly enough to get others in the organization to support his or her ideas. Or the salesperson who is loved by clients and can land the big sale, but when it comes to supporting implementation is unable to plan effectively. Or the customer service representative who knows the product backwards and forwards and can effectively communicate solutions to customers, but who can’t handle the stress and conflict inherent in the position.



It is clear that the effective individual is more than just the sum of his or her technical or professional expertise. In the 40-plus years we have studied individual performance and helped our clients develop their workforce, we have come to believe that, in addition to technical competence, what separates the effective from the highly effective individual is a core set of skills that a person acquires over his or her career, crossing from job to job, role to role. These “transferable skills” accumulate as an individual gains experience, takes advantage of developmental opportunities, and learns from mentors and coaches.

While we often spend years, sometimes decades, developing our work talents, we tend to disregard the importance of developing these transferable skills. Yet numerous studies have shown that these skills account for the majority of differences in individuals’ job performance. At Wilson Learning, we have grouped these transferable skills into three core skill domains:

  • Purposeful Communication: Studies of organizational effectiveness, individual performance, and team success have shown that an individual’s ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and openly while maintaining positive relationships with others is one of the largest contributors to performance success. The individual’s ability to communicate on purpose, with sensitivity and forethought, is Purposeful Communication.
  • Inspired Thinking: While there may have been a time when Inspired Thinking skills were required only by a few people at the top of the organization, this is clearly no longer the case. Everyone in today’s organization needs the ability to collect and organize information, create new knowledge, find innovative solutions, solve problems, and make judgment-based decisions. We believe ensuring that all employees have a broad set of Inspired Thinking skills is vital to organizational success.
  • Fulfilled Self: The values, personal characteristics, and sense of purpose that effective individuals bring to their lives is the Fulfilled Self. Employees who are fulfilled are more engaged and achieve higher performance levels. The Fulfilled Self is expressed and becomes evident in the consistency of behavior—the degree to which one’s actions match one’s thoughts and words. Individuals who treat others with respect, know how to manage their own emotions, and act in the interests of others, the organization, and themselves can be said to have a Fulfilled Self.

Work Talents

Individual Effectiveness Model

Work Talents provide the tangible means for an individual to make a substantive contribution toward achieving personal and organizational goals. They are the “stuff” of doing good work. A person’s technical or professional expertise and knowledge of his or her own organization and of business practices generally constitute Work Talents.

Balance and the Effective Individual

Thus, along with Work Talents, the three transferable skill domains of Purposeful Communication, Inspired Thinking, and Fulfilled Self define what all employees need in order to be successful in their work.

The purpose of this paper is to describe the three transferable skill domains in more detail. On the pages that follow, we will explore:

  • The core organizing principle underlying each skill domain
  • The individual skills and competencies that define each domain
  • How these skills can be developed in your organization

In today’s business world, the importance of Purposeful Communication is unquestionable. Numerous studies have linked Purposeful Communication with organizational performance, productivity, and employee engagement. It is essential that employees know how to communicate effectively!

The need for Purposeful Communication has increased for a number of reasons:

  • Technology changes mean that customers and suppliers expect to speak directly to technical support people, product experts, and other resources. This requires all employees, not just salespeople and managers, to be Purposeful Communicators.
  • Reduced cycle times and the need to shorten the period from new product development to launch means that people at all levels need skills to communicate cross-functionally more effectively.
  • Increases in global business, international outsourcing, and the “flattening” of the world means that people need improved skills for effective cross-cultural communication.

Several studies have shown the close connection between performance and Purposeful Communication. For example, in 2005 Watson Wyatt found a strong relationship between communication and a number of measures of organizational performance: Companies with high communication effectiveness had 57 percent greater total return to shareholders, 19.4 percent higher market premium, were 4.5 times more likely to have employee engagement, and had 20 percent lower turnover than companies with low communication effectiveness. Griffith (2002) explored communication effectiveness in the global setting and asserted, “Communication underlies the effectiveness of coordinating exchange activities, developing strong relationships, which results in improved performance.” Schmidt (2005) found effective communication to be a critical factor in transforming challenges of organizational crisis into opportunity to gain competitive advantage. In short, Purposeful Communication is one of the leading indicators of individual and organizational performance.

To excel in this domain, individuals need to understand the basis for Purposeful Communication. It is our perspective that Purposeful Communication exists when individuals effectively balance two forms of communication tension: relationship tension and task tension. Balancing these two requires both a desire to communicate effectively and skills that address each of these forms of tension. If done effectively, our research has shown that communication and organizational performance will improve.

Task and Relationship Tension

Task and Relationship Tension over Time

Whenever two or more people engage in a relationship, or even a conversation, there are always two forms of tension present—task tension and relationship tension.

Task tension is the desire or motivation to accomplish a certain goal or task. Something needs to get done or communicated, and until it does, there is tension. Task tension motivates action—the higher the task tension, the greater the potential for productivity.

Relationship tension is also always present in an interaction. Relationship tension is the lack of trust and comfort people feel in an interaction or relationship. High relationship tension causes people to not be as open and to hold back information and opinions. The higher the relationship tension, the lower the productivity.

Task and relationship tension both require energy. Therefore, if more energy is expended in dealing with relationship tension, then less energy will be available for dealing with task tension. In the early stages of communication, there is usually little trust and openness (that is, relationship tension is high). A lot of energy goes into figuring out just how to have the conversation, and the focus is on feeling comfortable. It is important to address and reduce the relationship tension. As the communication moves to the next stage and the relationship grows to a more familiar level, relationship tension goes down and individuals feel more comfortable and more trusting. As a result, more energy can be expended in dealing with the task (increase in task tension), thus creating effective communication.

Owning the Responsibility for Managing Tension

Managing relationship and task tension in order to communicate purposefully is an ongoing process. That is, a person does not reduce relationship tension in the first minutes of an interaction, then switch to increasing task tension. Balancing relationship and task tension is less a linear process and more like a dance; your reaction depends on the action of others. When you feel their relationship tension rising, you take steps to reduce it. When you see task tension lagging, you take steps to increase it.

Thus, while understanding the relationship between task tension and relationship tension is important for Purposeful Communication, what is more important is owning the responsibility to manage task and relationship tension. You must approach each communication with a positive intention. You must want to communicate clearly and take ownership for communicating effectively. It is too easy to blame poor communication on the other person—he or she is not being clear or is making you uncomfortable. Purposeful Communication will only occur when everyone acts as if they are responsible for communicating effectively, adapting their communication style to the other person and checking for understanding. If relationship tension is high, take steps to make others more comfortable. If task tension is low, take action to move the communication forward.

Skills of a Purposeful Communicator

Reducing relationship tension and increasing task tension requires a broad set of communication skills. While there are probably countless ways to categorize important communication skills, our research has identified the following critical skills for reducing relationship tension and increasing task tension.

  • Listening to Learn: This is more than just actively listening. Purposeful Communication requires that you listen in ways that deepen your understanding of the other person’s facts, opinions, and interests. Listening to learn reduces relationship tension by showing others that their perspective is valued and that you are interested in their information. It also increases task tension by clarifying interests and desired outcomes.
  • Expressing to Explore: The ability to explore your own and others’ ideas through effective questioning is critical for both reducing relationship tension and increasing task tension. Expressing to explore is more than knowing a variety of question types; it involves knowing how to express yourself in a way that invites dialogue, rather than shuts it off.
  • Establishing Empathy: The ability to understand others’ perspectives and to show empathy helps reduce relationship tension by demonstrating to others that they are valued as individuals. Establishing empathy is the ability to look at issues from others’ perspectives, anticipate their questions, and accurately perceive their emotions.
  • Demonstrating Credibility: Relationship tension is reduced when others consider you a trusted source of information. You build credibility by demonstrating your competence, establishing commonality with the other person, showing propriety, and demonstrating a positive intent.
  • Persuading: When only a few people in an organization held all of the information and authority, the ability to persuade others was not a great issue. Today it is different. People, without the aid of a title or position, need to influence others and motivate action in order to achieve the organization’s objectives. With increased use of collaborative teams, the ability to persuade others in the organization is particularly critical to individual and organizational success.
  • Constructive Conflict: In a time when new discoveries and innovations cause rapid changes, individuals need the ability to resolve conflicts quickly. Thus, constructive conflict is about knowing how to deal with conflict by encouraging useful and productive feedback and creating a safe environment where the focus is on recognizing, addressing, and resolving the task at hand, while avoiding personal and less productive conflicts.
  • Uncovering Interests: While it is important to show empathy (an understanding of others’ emotions), you also need to show that you understand, and acknowledge, others’ needs and interests. By analyzing others’ needs, recognizing all of the stakeholders involved, and understanding their interests, you help others know that you share their values and, as a result, build trust and reduce relationship tension.
  • Presenting Effectively: For many people, few tasks are dreaded more than delivering a presentation to a group. Yet, the ability to deliver presentations is required for an increasing proportion of people at all levels of the organization. To be truly effective, individuals need to create and deliver presentations that not only inform, but also result in a clear “call to action” for the audience. Fundamental to this skill is a confident presentation style, knowledge of how to structure an effective presentation, and the ability to maintain composure when dealing with challenging behaviors or questions.
  • Negotiating: As organizations adopt flatter structures, it is not enough to assume that managers and executives are the only ones who need negotiation skills. In today’s business world, people at all levels of the organization are expected to negotiate with coworkers and clients. Highly effective individuals know how to focus on problems (not people), generate and weigh options, and work with others to negotiate win-win resolutions to joint problems or issues.
  • Interpersonal Versatility: The workplace is becoming more culturally, behaviorally, educationally, and philosophically diverse, requiring individuals to be more versatile in their interactions. Interpersonal versatility is the ability to interact comfortably with people in all parts of the organization. Individuals with interpersonal versatility will have the advantage when working with others to create value for the organization and its stakeholders.

It is widely accepted that there are a number of thinking skills that are transferable from job to job or situation to situation. While solving an engineering challenge or accounting problem requires detailed knowledge of those fields in particular, it is also true that the problem-solving process used in both situations is actually rather similar. In addition, an individual who has learned an effective problem-solving process in one area can more quickly learn how to solve problems in another area because he or she has acquired these transferable thinking skills.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking Tension

Whether examined at a corporate, team, or individual level, the Inspired Thinking domain is critical to success. For example, one study showed that organizations that derived a majority of their revenue from new vs. existing products outperformed their peers. Also, in their research, Christensen and Raynor (The Innovator’s Solution) have shown that while innovation is closely associated with organizational success, creativity alone is not sufficient; Inspired Thinking is also a necessary part of the process. Similarly, our own studies of teams show that those with strong Inspired Thinking skills perform better than other teams. Additionally, decades of research by William Miller (Flash of Brilliance) have shown that individuals with strong Inspired Thinking skills are more successful.

Convergent and Divergent Tension

What is key to Inspired Thinking? In our experience, the ability to move back and forth between divergent and convergent thinking processes is central. When faced with a complex task or problem, it is important to be open to new information and, at the same time, be able to organize that information into manageable relationships. That is, people need to deal with the tension between divergent thinking and convergent thinking.

Divergent thinking is the ability to create new knowledge and the capacity to expand knowledge. This includes the ability to draw on examples, analogies, metaphors, etc., to broaden options, ideas, information, and choices. Divergence is about being open to all possibilities.

In contrast, convergent thinking is the ability to take a broad set of ideas and compare, structure, group, and organize these ideas into a new reality to reach the best possible solution. Convergence is creating order out of chaos by picking out those few ideas that are most relevant and important to the problem or task.

Moreover, what differentiates the Inspired Thinker from the ordinary thinker is the ability to go back and forth between convergent and divergent thinking—to expand the knowledge and thinking process, then reorganize the information to come up with a new conclusion, then again to expand upon that conclusion, and again contract to a final outcome. Like a spring, the Inspired Thinker can freely move from convergence to divergence in order to end up with the best possible outcome—an ability Michael J. Gelb refers to as “Synvergence.”

Skills of an Inspired Thinker

Moving back and forth from convergence to divergence requires a number of different types of Inspired Thinking skills. In our research, we have identified seven skills critical to this process. While different positions require different levels of expertise in these skills, they all are needed, to some degree, to create organizational success.

  • Reasoning: People rarely have all of the facts needed to make decisions. Therefore, the ability to see links among facts that ultimately reveal new information is a critical process for divergent thinking. The individual with excellent reasoning skills knows that processes such as inductive and deductive reasoning, critical thinking, and logical analysis can help fill gaps in knowledge, leading to more solid and more reliable conclusions.
  • Problem Solving: The ability to define a challenge, ask the right questions, test assumptions, and draw conclusions is critical to individual and organizational success. The effective problem solver has the attitude of an investigator and the mind of a scientist in following a reliable process of finding new ways to tackle non-routine work challenges.
  • Creative Thinking: An individual with creative thinking skills knows how to look beyond the obvious to come up with innovative ideas. Generating creative ideas requires drawing upon both facts and intuition, using skills for detailed analysis as well as using analogies, metaphors, and associations to stimulate potential solutions. A core of divergent thinking, the creative thinker understands that finding a solution to a problem sometimes means going out of one’s comfort zone and “looking outside the box.”
  • Pattern Recognition: Convergent thinking requires the ability to collect, sort, order, and classify information in meaningful ways. Thus, the ability to map out concepts and systems, see order in what appears to be chaos, and construct knowledge from data are all elements of the pattern recognition skill.
  • Decision-Making: Converging on a single best decision is a critical skill for individual and organizational effectiveness. Inspired Thinkers have skills to effectively weigh evidence, evaluate sources, and judge the relevance of information to reach and implement a decision or action.
  • Planning: Everyone needs to know how to effectively plan. Whether planning strategy, a project, or just the day’s work activities, Inspired Thinkers have the ability to sequence activities, anticipate potential problems, develop contingencies, and estimate resource and budget needs.
  • Thought into Action: Putting these thinking skills into practice is the only way ideas can create organizational value. Too often, an individual with a wonderful idea that could help solve an important problem is unable to convert that idea into action. It becomes just another good idea without any value. The ability to use and apply the other thinking skills in order to achieve a goal is the core of Thought into Action.

For many years, organizations have tried to increase employees’ engagement and fulfillment by focusing on the elimination of things that make people unhappy. Companies removed poor working conditions, changed unfair employee policies, knocked down barriers to career advancement, and addressed inequities in compensation. However, today we recognize that, while these barriers may prevent engagement and fulfillment, their removal is not sufficient to create engagement and the Fulfilled Self.

Decades of research by people such as Seligman, Bandura, Snyder, Csikszentmihalyi, Salovery, and Mayer have shown us why this is so. All of the actions mentioned above are external to the individual. Studies by these noted scholars have shown that true fulfillment comes from within. One’s virtues, strength of character, resilience, and sensitivity to one’s own and others’ emotions are what enable a person to flourish.

Excelling in the Fulfilled Self domain translates to improved organizational performance. Numerous studies have shown that an individual’s Fulfilled Self image predicts higher performance for a wide range of occupations, from machine operators and retail store managers to U.S. Navy officers and CEOs. Additionally, studies have shown that up to 28 percent of individual work performance can be accounted for by a person’s feeling of confidence and self-efficacy.

Personal and Social Awareness Tension

Task and relationship tension define Purposeful Communication. The tension between divergent and convergent thinking defines Inspired Thinking. The Fulfilled Self is also defined by a tension—in this case, the tension between personal awareness and social awareness.

We all know people who are very grounded in who they are and what they stand for, but who lack sensitivity to others’ feelings and needs. We also know people who are so highly attuned to the needs, feelings, and expectations of others that it is difficult to know where they stand or what is important to them.

Fulfilled Self is defined by a balance between personal awareness and social awareness. Highly effective people have their eyes focused both inward to their personal values and outward to society and others. Most of us know at least one person who serves as a role model for Fulfilled Self—someone who demonstrates a true interest in others, maintains a calm presence most of the time, and always seems to make decisions based on a profound clarity of purpose and intent.

Personal awareness encompasses those skills and characteristics that allow people to manage themselves. It is a person’s awareness of his or her own values and purpose in life. It is the ability to stay calm and decisive in the face of adversity, adapt to the situation, and effectively manage one’s life. A person’s values shape what is meaningful and motivating to him or her. People with high personal awareness know how to connect with their inner selves and draw strength from this.

Social awareness encompasses skills for creating effective working relationships. Showing others respect, demonstrating compassion, and valuing individual differences are all elements of social awareness. People who are high in social awareness know how to connect with others and can work collaboratively toward goals. They value the opinions and perspectives that come from differences in style, culture, and background, and they show respect and compassion in their interactions with others.

The Being and Doing of the Fulfilled Self

There is always tension between serving yourself (personal awareness) and serving others (social awareness). Understanding this tension is important, but more important is accepting the personal responsibility to balance these two forms of tension and owning the responsibility to serve others and serve yourself. This choice is what we call the Being of Fulfilled Self; this is the first step to excelling in this domain. Once you have made the choice, you also need the skills to fulfill that promise—this is the Doing of the Fulfilled Self.

The Skills of the Fulfilled Self

Accepting the responsibility to balance the tension between serving others and serving yourself is a first step. However, you also need skills to be open and sensitive to your own and others’ needs. In our research, we have identified a number of characteristics that define both personal and social awareness.

Personal Awareness

  • Personal Development: Today’s business environment is characterized by constant change. In response, individuals must not only develop core competencies; they must also develop skills that allow them to change and adapt to the business environment as it changes. Assessing strengths and needs, planning development, and taking action to learn and apply new skills are elements of Personal Development.
  • Self-Management: Managing time and emotions is critical in today’s chaotic work environment. People with effective self-management skills can deal effectively with job-related stress and remain focused and productive in spite of adverse circumstances.
  • Drive and Initiative: Recognizing when actions are needed, then taking action promptly and persevering through completion, are important elements of Drive and Initiative.
  • Risk-Taking: A quickly changing work environment requires a degree of risk-taking. There is never enough information or time to be certain about actions. Organizations need people who are aware of their risk tolerance—who know how to calculate risk and weigh the costs and benefits of actions, and who can initiate unconventional, uncommon, or risky action.
  • Courage: Recent business scandals and failures clearly point out that organizations need people, at all levels, who will stand up for their principles and values even in the face of organizational or business challenges. A willingness to sacrifice for what is right and good is at the core of Courage.

Social Awareness

  • Integrity: Knowing when to make promises and commitments, and keeping them once made, is a critical skill. Integrity today is as much about knowing when and how to say no to a request as it is following through on commitments once made.
  • Compassion: Everyone is compassionate, but some are better at expressing it than others. People with a strong Fulfilled Self know what gets in the way of expressing their concern for others, pause before judging others’ actions, and appropriately balance positive and corrective comments.
  • Valuing Diversity: Today’s work environment is much more diverse than it was in the past. Add the increased global nature of work and the frequent need to interact with people from a variety of cultures, and it is easy to see that all people in an organization need to value the diversity of individual backgrounds, cultural experiences, and beliefs.
  • Contributing to Teams: Given today’s business demands for effective teamwork and collaboration, effective individuals need to demonstrate the ability to play the role of contributor in cross-organizational collaborations.

Despite the emphasis that many American business authors place on other domains (communication, thinking, self-fulfillment), it is important not to ignore the critical value of work talents.

Many years ago there was a popular cartoon published in a Japanese magazine. The drawing showed two men in business suits, one American and one Japanese, sitting on a commuter train. Both were reading books. On the cover of the book held by the American man was the title of a book that was popular in the U.S. at the time: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. On the cover of the book held by the Japanese man was the title All I Really Need to Know I Learned by Studying Hard in Advanced Engineering Courses. As this cartoon clearly points out, the value of work talents is at least equal to the value of the three transferable skills.

All people bring unique and specialized skills to the work environment, and they are essential to accomplishing the mission of the organization. By definition, Work Talents are specific to a profession, industry, company, and position. To try to delineate all of the skills required would be futile. However, the kinds of unique skills required of individuals tend to fall into four major areas:

Business Acumen

In the past, it was sufficient for a company’s leader to understand how the organization worked. In today’s complex business environment, everyone needs to have some understanding of business processes and operations.

Organization Knowledge

In addition to general business acumen, it is also important for people to understand what makes their organization unique. This includes knowledge of the organization’s products and core values, as well as the organization’s key performance indicators and how they are managed.

Technical/Professional Expertise

What more can be said? Everyone needs to bring a unique talent or capability to the job.

Working with Technology

In the modern workplace, knowledge of advanced technology is required of almost everyone. Whether it is computer applications, Internet functions, phone and telecommunication systems, or specialized electronic equipment, almost all employees utilize some technology on a daily basis.


As may have become apparent, central to the three transferable skill domains is the concept of balance. In our research into these three domains, the concept of balance between two opposite tensions repeatedly occurred. It is our conclusion that individual effectiveness exists in a zone between two different and opposing forces. These forces create a source of energy that propels an individual to new heights of effectiveness.

Some people associate the word “tension” with “stress” and give it negative connotations. From our perspective, tension actually plays a central role in creating value. Tension is what makes a rubber band work. Tension on a machine’s belt or chain allows that machine to function. Tension makes things work!

Each skill domain has its own form of tension. In each there is a natural tendency for an individual to move toward one source of tension and away from the other. The highly effective individual has learned to recognize this pull and consciously makes an effort to maintain a balance.

Balance and the Effective Individual

In summary, we believe that the four domains (Purposeful Communication, Inspired Thinking, the Fulfilled Self, and Work Talents) are critical elements to individual effectiveness. That does not mean that all employees require all of the skills to the same degree. Different situations and positions will require a different mix of these skills. For example, people in more direct contact with customers or the public (salespeople, customer service representatives, public relations specialists) may need to better develop the Purposeful Communication skills than others, while people in technical positions (designers, scientists, accountants) may need to focus on developing the Inspired Thinking skills.

The Effective Individual
Purposeful Communication Inspired Thinking Fulfilled Self Work Talents
Accepting responsibility for managing both relationship and task tension in communications. Freely moving between convergent and divergent thinking processes to determine the right action at the right time. Acting on the type of individual you want to be by balancing personal and social awareness. Bringing unique and valued skills to the job.
K E Y   C O M P E T E N C I E S
  • Listening to Learn
  • Expressing to Explore
  • Establishing Empathy
  • Demonstrating Credibility
  • Persuading
  • Constructive Conflict
  • Uncovering Interests
  • Presenting Effectively
  • Negotiating
  • Interpersonal Versatility
  • Reasoning
  • Problem Solving
  • Creative Thinking
  • Pattern Recognition
  • Decision Making
  • Planning
  • Thought into Action
  • Personal Development
  • Self Management
  • Drive and Initiative
  • Risk-Taking
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Compassion
  • Valuing Diversity
  • Contributing to Teams
  • Business Acumen
  • Organization Knowledge
  • Technical/Professional Expertise
  • Working with Technology

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

Nevertheless, everyone needs to develop skills from the four domains to at least some degree. Customer service people need Inspired Thinking to help them come up with effective and sometimes creative approaches to customer problems. Technical employees need to communicate their ideas and collaborate with others to generate creative solutions.


Some have suggested that many of these skills cannot be learned—that when it comes to things like creativity, risk-taking, and communication skills, people either have them or they don’t. To the contrary, research shows that not only can these skills be developed, it is essential that organizations provide opportunities so their employees can learn and apply them.

While there are multiple ways to approach development, many of our clients have found that a simple four-step process is the most effective method for developing new skills for existing employees. While any one organization may not implement all steps in this model, following the basic process below has reduced the time to proficiency and increased the sustainability of these skills in the workplace.

Assess, Learn, Plan, Sustain

Assess: Any development effort should begin with an assessment of current strengths and developmental needs. There are a number of methods for assessing skills: job simulations, tests, and multi-rater (360- or 180-degree) feedback are some of the most common. At the completion of this step, both the individual and the organization will have a good understanding of this person’s needs for development.

Plan: We are all familiar with the expression, “people don’t plan to fail as much as they fail to plan.” This is also true when it comes to developing skills. A large amount of development in organizations is haphazard and unfocused. This ultimately wastes people’s time and the organization’s resources. Having a clear plan that defines what each individual will do, when he or she will do it, and what the intended result is provides a focus to learning and development activities.

Learn: Learning occurs in many places and in many ways. Learning needs to utilize both formal and informal development activities, such as on-the-job learning activities, as well as classroom-based learning.

Sustain: The vast majority of learning in organizations is lost, forgotten, or never applied in the work environment. Thus, the final step is to ensure learning transfers to the workplace and is sustained in the person’s job performance until it becomes a repeatable habit. Providing manager support, supplying a mentor or coach, encouraging follow-up reinforcement learning, and giving employees tools to help them apply the skills on the job are some examples of how you can sustain learning and its use on the job.


It is not surprising that the concept of balance is at the core of individual effectiveness. Balance has been at the center of life purpose and value for centuries. Whether it is the “Yin-Yang” of Taoism, the Korean “Kwae,” or Buddha’s “Middle Path,” balance is intertwined with fulfillment, enlightenment, and engagement.

Highly effective people maintain a balance in their lives, in their communications, in their approach to thinking through problems, and in their relationship between themselves and society. While some people will achieve high performance within an unbalanced life, these achievements are often, maybe always, temporary and fleeting. When you think of the people you know who consistently produce high performance throughout their lives, you will likely think of these people as well balanced in their lives, relationships, and sense of self.

Versatile Leadership

It is well documented that people who understand differences in communication preferences, and learn to adapt their own communications to make others more comfortable, are more effective leaders. This skill is called Versatility, and it is the core of Wilson Learning’s Social Style capability. But how does that actually work? What are the kinds of adjustments managers and employees need to make in order to increase their Versatility and make their work unit and organization more effective?

img_1046In an attempt to better understand how managers and employees express their Versatility, and the needs that different employees and managers have, Wilson Learning conducted a set of in-depth interviews with both managers and their employees, each lasting at least one hour. In all, 82 interviews were completed from 35 different organizations in various industries. These interviews provided detailed information about the style preferences of managers and employees, and the impact of Versatility on their relationships.

The results indicate that leaders need to pay attention to a number of factors in order to increase their Versatility. For leaders, Versatility is most critical during performance review sessions and when dealing with conflict. Individual employee expectations regarding performance objectives, feedback, and support all differ according to the Social Style of the employee. How a leader approaches these issues can greatly affect individual and organizational performance.

What Are Social Style and Versatility?

Effective communication between managers and their direct reports is critical, both for the success of the organization and the success and satisfaction of employees. The most common reason people give for leaving a job is poor communication or a poor relationship with their manager. Good communication skills are associated with success in sales, sales leadership, negotiations, and a host of other areas.

Versatility is key to effective communication.

Versatility is based upon Wilson Learning’s Social Style model. Nearly half a century of research has shown that people are divided equally across four primary communication styles. These four Social Styles are called Driver, Expressive, Amiable, and Analytical. When you find that a person is easy to communicate and work with, it is often because you share the same Social Style. When a person seems difficult to work with, it is often because your styles are different.

Because each style represents about 25% of all people, managers only share a Social Style with about one-fourth of their employees. As a result, almost all managers are faced with the dilemma of creating effective communication with the remaining three-fourths of the workforce. The Versatility skill allows managers to do just that.

Understanding the Causes and Consequences of Leader Versatility

To help leaders develop Versatility, we needed a clear understanding of how a manager’s actions affect the performance of the four Social Styles. That was the purpose of this study.

Our primary objective in this study was to truly understand how the things leaders do and say affect employee performance. Therefore, we felt that an open-ended interview procedure was the best approach. While this does not provide statistical or numerical results, it does provide a rich description of situations and actions that can guide organizational leaders toward increased Versatility. This study had some important and unique characteristics:

  • We needed to interview both managers and their employees to have a complete picture of communication patterns.
  • We needed to know the Social Style of both the managers and their employees.
  • We needed a balance of all four styles.
  • We needed a representative sample across a range of organizations and industries.

Each interview lasted at least one hour, and many lasted much longer. Our questions covered a wide range of topics, including how different Social Styles manage people; how different Social Styles prefer to be managed; situations in which Versatility was most valuable; the impact of Versatility on trust; and how managers and employees build and lose trust in each other.

In total we interviewed 82 people, evenly divided among the four Social Styles and between managers and employees. These 82 people came from 35 different organizations, representing several different industries, including high-technology, pharmaceutical, financial services, insurance, telecommunications, and automotive.

The results provide a rich description of how Versatility skills can affect the manager-employee relationship and the important role of communication in building high performance. In this paper, we will focus on two major outcomes: the impact of Social Styles on the manager-employee relationship and the role of trust in the manager-employee relationship.

What Do Leaders Need to Pay Attention to?

We start by describing the results relative to the impact of Social Style on key elements of the relationship between a manager and employee. It is important that leaders know Social Style and how it impacts their employees’ performance.

The Ideal Manager

Style of the employee Ideal characteristics of managers
Driver Is sincere and direct
Expressive Is friendly, open in communication, trusting, and empathic
Amiable Shows confidence in employees; is honest and trustworthy
Analytical Is knowledgeable and shares information openly

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

Employees with different Social Styles see different characteristics as being descriptive of an ideal manager. While all employees express that ideal managers give them clear objectives and the autonomy to carry them out, the following characteristics tend to be related to the style of the employee:

A manager needs to be aware of his or her own behavioral tendencies and the expectations of different employees. For example, an Analytical manager who does not express empathy and an open sharing of feelings may not be meeting the needs of all his or her employees.

Managers’ Weaknesses

Style of the employee Weaknesses of managers
Driver Giving too much or too little direction. Too little makes the task too vague to be effective; too much keeps employees from using their personal discretion.
Expressive Being closed-minded. Expressives do not like managers who see only one way of doing things and are closed to discussing options.
Amiable Not expressing personal concern for the employee. Amiables do not like managers who show little personal interest in them.
Analytical Giving too much or too little information. Analyticals do not like to be told things they already know or that are irrelevant to the task; at the same time, they don’t want gaps in the information that the managers could have provided.

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

Parallel to views of the ideal manager, the primary weaknesses of managers are also style related. While all employees express that a common weakness of managers is supervising too closely (“micro manager,” “looks over my shoulder too much”), each Social Style describes slightly different characteristics as weaknesses in managers.

Thus, effective leaders balance the amount of information, direction, options, and expression of concern for their employees and match that to the style of their direct reports.

Giving Support to Employees

Style of the employee Support expected from managers
Driver They want advice but not direct intervention. They want the freedom to solve problems themselves.
Expressive They want a sounding board; someone with whom to discuss and evaluate options and choices. They want managers to support and back up their ideas.
Amiable They want a manager to guide them down the right path, checking in and expressing confidence in them and making small course corrections along the way.
Analytical They want managers to give them direct feedback on their decisions and provide a clear and full acceptance of their decisions.

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

From time to time, all employees need support from their managers. The employees interviewed said that managerial support—in the form of advice and removing organizational barriers—was critical to their performance. But, different Social Styles also expressed some differences in the types of support they want and expect to receive from their managers.

Managers who give support in the way they would want to be supported (that is, as their own Social Styles would want to be supported) may not be providing the kind of support the employee needs to be most effective. Managers need to be aware of their own tendencies and adjust them to the varying needs of their employees’ Social Styles.

When Is Group Involvement Needed?

Style of employees and managers When to involve the group in a decision
Driver When the decision or action affects the responsibilities of any individual in the group, or for coordinating work efforts
Expressive When the whole group is affected
Amiable Anytime the group can contribute to brainstorming, problem solving, or planning
Analytical When decisions or actions affect them directly

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

When to involve a group or team in a decision is a common dilemma for managers. When asked what situations are appropriate for group involvement, the answers by both managers and employees were consistent and differed by Social Style.

Managers’ Biases for Giving Employees More Responsibility

Style of the manager When they provide more responsibility
Driver Tend to give more responsibility to employees who repeatedly exceed expectations on current tasks; that is, based upon a demonstration of desire to do more
Expressive Give more responsibility to employees who ask for it and directly express a willingness to do more

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

One clear finding that may affect the success and advancement of different employees is how managers of different Social Styles tend to give additional responsibilities to employees. In this case, Drivers and Analyticals (both being more task-directed) gave similar answers, as did Expressives and Amiables (both being more people-directed).

Of course, in all cases, the primary factor is the employee’s ability to do the job. But if you are an Expressive or Amiable manager, don’t assume that those employees who don’t ask for more responsibility don’t want it—they may be trying to communicate their desire for more responsibility by working hard to exceed your expectations. Similarly, if you are a Driver or Analytical manager, pay attention when people say they want more responsibility.

How Employees Judge Their Own Performance

Style of the employee Criteria for judging own performance
Driver Tend to focus on measurable criteria. Driver and Analytical styles (Task-Directed Responsiveness) base their own performance on indicators such as deadlines, number of mistakes, tasks accomplished, etc. They place less emphasis on the positive reactions of others.
Expressive Tend to base their self-judgements on feedback from others—coworkers, managers, and customers.

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

Employees will perform based upon both their manager’s and their own criteria for good performance. An employee’s criteria for judging his or her performance also seems to be closely related to whether they are more task-directed (Drivers and Analyticals) or more people-directed (Amiables and Expressives).

While neither group ignores the quantifiable indicators of performance, or the reactions of others, it is clear that when employees are asked to judge their own performance, they will likely make reference to Social Style-specific criteria.

When Is Knowledge of Social Styles Most Helpful?

Most managers and employees indicated that knowledge of Social Styles is useful in any interaction. However, there were three specific situations in which both managers and employees agreed that knowledge of Social Styles was most helpful:

  • Conflict situations: Whether the manager is dealing directly with a conflict or is helping others deal with conflict, almost all of the people interviewed indicated that knowledge of Social Styles is very helpful in addressing these situations. This knowledge helps people focus less on the emotions of the situation and more on the resolution of the conflict, and helps identify the differences that are at the root of the conflict.
  • Performance reviews: Knowledge of Social Styles was also seen as greatly helpful during performance review or appraisal meetings between a manager and an employee. Social Styles knowledge can help put the employee more at ease during performance reviews and can help focus the discussion on areas of particular concern for both parties.
  • Efforts to persuade: While more an issue for employees than managers, knowledge of Social Styles was also seen as critical when presenting information in an effort to persuade a specific course of action or decision. Knowledge of Social Styles can help in addressing interests that are highly important to the other person and, as a result, increase success in efforts to persuade.

A Common Misperception: The Social Styles of Top Management

Style Employees’ perception of top managers’ dominant style Wilson Learning’s Database: Percent of top managers by style
Driver 53% 25%
Expressive 14% 39%
Amiable 6% 17%
Analytical 20% 19%
Mixed/ don’t know 7%

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

One common misperception we identified through the interviews was employees’ assumptions about the Social Styles of top management. While we did not know the Social Styles of the executives in each of the organizations, when asked their perceptions of the dominant style in top management, the majority of employees indicated that Drivers dominate. However, the actual results from our database of Social Style Profiles tell quite a different story. As the chart at right shows, Expressives actually dominate top management positions. In addition, Amiables are much more frequent in top management positions (17% of all top managers profiled) than was assumed to be the case by the employees interviewed.

Trust in the Manager-Employee Relationship

One of the most critical elements of effective leadership is trust between the manager and the employee. The more trust a manager has in an employee, the more autonomy and job responsibility he or she gives the employee. The more trust an employee has in a manager, the more open and honest the communication is, and the employee has more commitment to the organization. Knowing how to build trust is an important skill for all people.

When Do Employees Lose Trust in a Manager?

Causes of Lost Trust
Style of the employee or manager Employees’ views Managers’ assumptions
Driver Breaking confidences or making poor decisions Failure to answer questions or resolve problems
Expressive Failure to back up employees Breaking confidences
Amiable Failure to adequately address requests for support Misinterpreted behavior
Analytical Lack of manager competence, inconsistency in providing feedback Monitoring work too closely, not consulting with the employee

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

Managers need to know what kinds of actions might cause employees to lose trust in them. Unfortunately, there are two potential blind spots. First, the Social Style of the employee affects what he or she sees as the primary causes of low trust. Second, the manager’s Social Style affects what he or she assumes leads to low trust. The chart at right summarizes the primary causes of an employee losing trust in a manager.

None of these causes are unique to a particular style—they all cause lower trust for all styles. However, the style-related actions represent manager behavior that is more likely to cause a loss of trust for that style in particular. The fact that employees and managers have different perceptions of what causes a loss of trust is an interesting finding and can greatly influence manager-employee relationships.

The Impact of Lost Trust

Impact of Lost Trust
Style of the employee or manager Employees’ responses Managers’ assumptions
Driver Anger and defensiveness Need to supervise more
Expressive Less contact and communication Need to supervise more
Amiable Anger, defensiveness, and less communication Termination of relationship
Analytical Expectation that time is required to smooth over the issue Loss of employee responsiveness

© Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.

When trust is lost (the manager losing trust in the employee, or the employee losing trust in the manager), it affects both parties. In all cases, there is increased strain and tension in the relationship. In addition, there are style-related effects, noted in the table at right.

One clear finding had to do with efforts to re-establish trust. For both Amiables and Analyticals, re-establishing trust inevitably involves the passage of time. In other words, Amiable and Analytical styles expressed that efforts to re-establish trust immediately after an incident will fail and that only “time heals wounds.” This is particularly important information for Driver and Expressive leaders, who may attempt to re-establish trust too early, only to increase the resistance of the Amiable or Analytical employee and further delay the re-establishment of a productive relationship.


Employees don’t leave companies; they leave managers!

Numerous studies have shown that the most common reason people give for leaving a job is a poor relationship with their manager. Turnover, productivity, performance, and employee satisfaction are all tied to a manager’s ability to build effective relationships with employees.

Versatility is the key. While several studies in the past have shown the link between performance measures and Versatility scores, this study shows in more detail how Versatility actually works in the manager-employee relationship. A manager who is sensitive to the style of his or her employees, and takes steps to adjust his or her behavior to meet the needs of employees, will communicate more clearly and establish a more trusting relationship.

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 Building Relationship Versatility: Social Styles at Work
About the Author
Michael LeimbachMichael Leimbach
Michael Leimbach

Michael Leimbach, Ph.D., is Vice President of Global Research and Development for Wilson Learning Worldwide. Dr. Leimbach provides leadership for researching and designing Wilson Learning’s diagnostic, learning, and performance improvement capabilities. He has managed major research studies in sales, leadership, and organizational effectiveness, and developed Wilson Learning’s learning transfer, impact evaluation, and return on investment models. Dr. Leimbach has consulted for a wide variety of global client organizations, serves on the ISO Technical committee for development of ISO 29999 Standard for Learning Service Providers, and is Editor-in-Chief for Advances in Developing Human Resources. Dr. Leimbach has authored six books, published over 100 professional articles, and is a frequent speaker at national and global conferences.