I’d rather not think for myself: How positive feedback and job autonomy influence the impact of sales anxiety on burnout

Authors: Childs, D., Cadogan, J., Lee, N. and Dewsnap, B.

Conference: Global Sales Science Institute

Dates: 7-10 June 2023

Place of Publication: https://gssi.world/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/GSSI-2023-Proceedings-.pdf


1 I’d rather not think for myself: How positive feedback and job autonomy influence the impact of sales anxiety on burnout 1. Introduction Practitioners are increasingly prioritizing the mental health of salespeople (Jayaprakash 2022). Practitioner articles outline multiple negative states linked to reduced salesperson mental health, with burnout (Peasley 2022) and anxiety (Nordli 2022) receiving a great deal of attention. Despite their well-known influence, both burnout and anxiety are hugely prevalent in salespeople. A recent practitioner survey estimated that 90% of sellers are currently feeling burnt out (Gartner 2022), whereas salesperson anxiety is three times higher than the national average (Cook 2022).

Anxiety can be considered a transient state that varies across situations (Sager and Wilson 1995). It is perhaps unsurprising that salespeople experience high levels of anxiety in their role, since failure is linked to increased anxiety, and 94% of sales activities result in failure (Raichshtain 2014). Compounding this problem, sales anxiety is said to drain the resources of salespeople, which may lead to other mental health burdens such as burnout, ultimately increasing salesperson turnover (Amin, Arndt, and Tanner 2023). Although recent sales research examines both anxiety and burnout independently, research is yet to understand the impact of sales anxiety on burnout. Typically, present research primarily focuses on anxiety’s impact on performance-related outcomes (e.g., Agnihotri et al. 2016; Verbeke and Bagozzi 2000). However, sales research fails to examine the impact of anxiety on other mental health outcomes within salespeople. The present research looks to fill this void by understanding the impact of sales anxiety on salesperson burnout.

In addition, understanding how any subsequent impact of sales anxiety can be influenced is of key importance to mitigating any negative impact. Job demands-resource theory (Demerouti et al. 2001) proposes that job resources buffer the negative impact of demands on burnout (Panagopoulos et al. 2018). However, resources may not necessarily operate beneficially for salespeople experiencing greater anxiety. For example, Strain and Taylor (1997) demonstrate that the benefits of job autonomy are dependent on a salesperson’s need for autonomy. Highly anxious salespeople will have a reduced level of cognitive functioning (McKnight et al. 2016), and thus, such salespeople will likely need greater guidance and support from their sales manager (Kemp, Borders, and Ricks 2011). Sales manager feedback (Chakrabarty, Oubre, and Brown 2008) is an important external support mechanism to a salesperson. Positive feedback can offer recognition, reinforcement and encouragement (Lussier, Hatmann, and Bolander 2021). Thus, positive feedback from a sales manager is likely to effectively act in a buffering capacity mitigating the impact of sales anxiety on burnout. However, although autonomy may help to instil feelings of confidence and proficiency within a salesperson (Matthews, Beeler, Zablah, and Hair 2018), sales roles with a high degree of autonomy can have limited managerial support (Friend, Ranjan, Johnson 2019). Accordingly, autonomy given to highly anxious salespeople may actually exasperate the impact of anxiety on other subsequent mental health outcomes such as burnout. On the other hand, resources providing support to highly anxious salespeople, however, are likely to alleviate the negative impact of sales anxiety. Accordingly, the present study makes two key theoretical contributions. First, we seek to understand the impact of sales anxiety on an important mental health outcome in burnout.

Second, the present study examines the moderating role of both job autonomy and sales 2 manager positive feedback, demonstrating the conterveiling effects that such job ‘resources can have on the anxiety-burnout relationship. Accordingly, in role autonomy and sales manager positive feedback, the present research will examine the moderating role of two malleable managerial resources to further shed light on how sales managers can alter the impact of salesperson anxiety on burnout. 2. Literature review Anxiety is an intrusive, pervasive emotion occurring within specific situations (Belschak, Verbeke, and Bagozzi 2006). Sales research typically examines anxiety from the state perspective, and focuses on understand antecedents to, and performance-related consequences of, sales anxiety (e.g., Amin Arndt, and Tanner 2023; Boyd, Lewin, and Sager 2009; Lussier Philp, Hartmann, and Wieland 2021). Although much is known regarding the antecedents to anxiety, and its impact upon performance-based outcomes, the mental health of the salesforce has also become of paramount interest to practitioners. Burnout is the most popular mental health outcome discussed within sales, and is outlined as a state of resource depletion (Hobfoll and Freedy 2017). Burnout itself consists of three components: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a diminishing sense of personal accomplishment (Bakker and de Vries 2021). Emotional exhaustion is generally seen as the core of burnout and is characterized by a loss of resources, where depersonalization and a diminishing sense of personal accomplishment are characterized as a dysfunctional coping mechanism whereby an individual detaches themselves from others, and feelings of unhappiness and a lack of achievement (Maslach and Leiter 2016), respectively.

A recent meta-analysis from wider literature identifies a consistent correlation between the constructs (Koutsimani et al. 2019). The high-pressure role of a salesperson results in anxiety being a common experience for salespeople, and such feelings of anxiety place extra cognitive demands on an individual, and influence their ability to work effective and learn new skills or abilities (Hartmann and Lussier 2020). In this sense, sales anxiety can be seen as a job demand that subsequently drains a salesperson’s resources (Amin et al. 2023; Devotto and Wechsler 2019). In addition to this, salespeople who are experiencing anxiety are more likely to begin to detach themselves from sales activities, since they feel uneasy when undertaking such activities, and would prefer to withdraw from engaging in them (Belschak et al. 2006). They may also fear ridicule from peers and rejection from coworkers, further promoting them to withdraw from their role (Verbeke and Bagozzi 2000). Alongside withdrawing from sales activities, anxiety is also likely to result in a salesperson doubting whether they have the capabilities to successfully perform their role (Lussier et al. 2021). Anxiety is proposed to reduce an individual’s self-belief (Bandura 2015), and salespeople can experience a reduced ability to competently analyze sales situations (Agnihotri et al. 2016), leading to salespeople to feel a reduced sense of accomplishment when reflecting on their increased anxiety levels. Accordingly, the following hypotheses are presented: H1a-H1c: Sales anxiety is positively related to subsequent: a) emotional exhaustion; b) depersonalization; and c) diminishing personal accomplishment 2.4 The buffering role of sales manager feedback When individual are anxious, they may look for support to help to deal with these feelings (Beerh and McGrath 1992). In the sales role, the sales manager is the individual who they will most likely turn to for such support (Murphy and Li 2012). In sales, support can be provided in the form of feedback, and positive feedback help to reassure salespeople that they 3 have the capabilities to conduct their sales role, and that they have the support of their manager, helping to reduce resource loss in response to a stressor (Lewin and Sager 2008). In addition, positive feedback may help to energize and build esteem within a salesperson, alongside providing informational aid that can improve an individual’s circumstances, promoting a more solution-based coping strategy alternative to depersonalizing (Lewin and Sager 2008), influencing any subsequent impact of anxiety. Finally, the reassurance and reinforcing nature of positive feedback should provide confidence to salespeople, helping them to feel more positive about themselves and their actions within the sales role (Zellars et al. 2004). Accordingly: H2a-H2c: Sales Manager positive feedback will negatively moderate the impact of sales anxiety on subsequent: a) emotional exhaustion; b) depersonalization; and c) diminishing personal accomplishment 2.5 The countervailing role of role autonomy Job autonomy is another job resources discussed to buffer the negative effect of job demands on burnout (Fernet et al. 2013), and is proposed to play a facilitating role, allowing flexibility in the way that salespeople can tackle role stressors (Hoppner et al. 2021). Thus, when reflecting on their actions, salespeople can feel a sense of pride and confidence in how they have dealt with a stressor, since they were in control of the way the stressor was handled. Thus, when individuals feel anxious, having job autonomy may help them to consequently generate some feeling of competence, helping them to perceive greater feelings of achievement within their role (Rapp, Agnihotri, Baker, and Andzulis 2015). However, in specific situations, it has been proposed that resources may act to inhibit negative outcomes (Matthews et al. 2018). This may be the case for highly anxious salespeople, job autonomy may also play an exasperating role enhancing the impact of anxiety on certain outcomes. Anxiety promotes individuals to partake in protective actions (Belschak et al. 2006), and given the freedom to do so, individuals may then decide to further withdraw from their sales role (De Clercq, Haq, and Azeem 2020). With a lack of autonomy and more support, individuals may be less likely to avoid conducting sales activities, despite their anxiety, preventing them from depersonalizing in their role. In addition, In high autonomy roles, when salespeople are anxious and ineffectively functioning cognitively, decisions may take extra cognitive and mental effort on behalf of the salesperson, as opposed to simply following stricter guidelines, resulting in greater resource drain over time (McCarthy, Trougakos, and Cheng 2016). Anxiety can impair a salespersons ability, and can negatively influence their interpersonal mentalizing skills, leaving them less able to detect non-verbal cues, and bring focus and clarity to sales conversations (Agnihotri et al. 2016). Thus, anxious salespeople may prefer to have less control of how they do their jobs, as they require greater support to help them to deal with their increased cognitive effort (Kemp et al. 2011), which may result in greater subsequent exhaustion. Thus: H3a-H3c: Job Autonomy will positively moderate the impact of sales anxiety on subsequent: a) emotional exhaustion, and b) depersonalization, but negatively moderate the impact of sales anxiety on subsequent diminishing personal accomplishment 2. Methodology Participants were employed using a US-based online panel data company, and contacted across two time points one-month apart. Given salespeople’s consistent customer interactions, customer interactions, and averagely high failure rates (Friend, Ranjan, and Johnson 2019; Hall, Ahearne, and Sujan 2015), one month was considered an appropriate 4 time frame for anxiety to exert its impact upon burnout. To ensure data quality, considering recommendations from Johnson (2016), the data was checked for ‘speeders’, and surveys examined for ‘straight-lining’; with any offending data eliminated from further analysis. All constructs were measured by previously established multiple-item self-report scales, with specific items adapted to fit the context where necessary. The three burnout dimensions were separated temporally from all other variables, measured one-month later. In addition, scales were measured using different anchors and methods to help prevent common method bias. The marker variable approach was also used to determine any presence of common method bias (Lindell and Whitney 2001), and demonstrated no significant correlations with the other variables included within the study, and thus, common method bias is not a concern for the present study (Lindell and Whitney 2001). Multiple controls variables were also included, namely active coping, salesperson age, and duration in sales role.

3. Results All hypotheses were tested using structural equation modeling within LISREL 9.3, with the model demonstrates adequate fit, with the CFI and NNFI above .90, while the RMSEA and SRMR are below .08 (Newsom, 2015). Hypotheses tests were carried out using maximum likelihood estimation, finding general support for the hypotheses. Finding support for H1a-H1c, sales anxiety was positively related to subsequent emotional exhaustion (p = <.01), depersonalization (p = <.01), and diminished personal accomplishment (p = <.05). H2a-H2c also finds support from the data, with positive feedback demonstrated to marginally mitigate the impact of sales anxiety on subsequent emotional exhaustion (p = <.10), depersonalization (p = <.10), and diminished personal accomplishment (p = <.10). Turning to the moderating role of job autonomy, job autonomy positively moderated the relationship between sales anxiety and subsequent emotional exhaustion (p = <.05), and sales anxiety and subsequent depersonalization (p = <.05), but did not moderate the relationship between sales anxiety and subsequent diminished personal accomplishment (p = >.10). A full overview of the results is presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Full Overview of Results (Controls omitted for space) Hypotheses Unstandardized coefficient Standard error T-value Hypotheses Supported ANX -> EE (H1a) .65 2.98 4.49 Yes ANX -> DPERS (H1b) .84 .13 5.91 Yes ANX -> DPA (H1c) .29 .07 2.07 Yes ANX x PFB -> EE (H2a) -.63 13.87 -1.95 Yes ANX x PFB -> DPERS(H2b) -.49 .53 -1.84 Yes ANX x PFB --> DPA (H2c) -.60 .32 -2.01 Yes ANX x AUTO -> EE (H2a) .69 9.90 2.15 Yes ANX x AUTO -> DPERS (H3b) .57 .38 2.15 Yes ANX x AUTO -> DPA (H3c) .41 .22 1.40 No 4. Discussion Anxiety and burnout are common experiences for salespeople that require careful management. The present study contributes to this literature by understanding the impact of 5 anxiety on the individual components of burnout, alongside understanding the countervailing roles of positive feedback and job autonomy. The findings demonstrate that salesperson anxiety subsequently influences each individual component of burnout. Such findings highlight that anxiety will not only detrimentally influence performance-based outcomes, but also other mental health outcomes, identifying a need for a greater focus to be placed on managing salesperson anxiety.

The present study also demonstrates that job autonomy can actually exasperate the impact of sales anxiety on subsequent emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. Despite autonomy being generally considered beneficial within the salesforce, the present study challenges this premise. The findings are explain by the underlying logic as to how anxiety operates. Anxiety can lead to substantial suffering and cognitive impairment (Yasin and Dzlkifli 2009). When anxious, salespeople will need greater support, which is less likely in roles characterized be greater autonomy (Friend et al. 2019). Thus, in such conditions autonomy will result in a salesperson having to cognitively work harder, whilst feeling less supported, resulting in greater resource drain (McCarthy, Trougakos, and Cheng 2016). Alongside promoting greater resource loss, autonomy also allows the freedom for salespeople to further withdraw from their sales role. Autonomy is beneficial for salespeople clear in how to undertake their sales role, but may cause them to lose interest when things are unclear (Hollet-Haudebert, Mulki, and Fournier 2011). Autonomy was not demonstrated to influence the relationship between sales anxiety and feelings of personal accomplishment. Although increased autonomy can result in increased subsequent burnout symptoms for salespeople, positive feedback can play a buffering role in mitigating the effect of sales anxiety on salesperson burnout. The results provide further support to the important role positive feedback can play in reducing the impact of differing stressors on burnout The present study contributes to theory in two key ways. First, the present study is the first to examine the impact of sales anxiety on other mental health outcomes within salespeople, demonstrating that sales anxiety can subsequently enhance feelings of each of the three components of burnout. Second, the present study presents two ways that the impact of sales anxiety on subsequent burnout symptoms can be influenced, by considering the level of autonomy, and the amount of feedback, a sales manager should provide to anxious salespeople. Two key implications for practitioners are also present. First, the findings suggest that manager must keep a close eye on their subordinates’ anxiety levels, since this can negatively impact their well-being, which will likely lead to greater turnover in their salespeople. Second, the present study assists sales managers in understanding how they can better manage anxious salespeople. Sales managers should look to reduce the autonomy given to salespeople when they are experiencing greater levels of anxiety, and increase the feedback they provide. This extra support to a salesperson may help anxious salespeople by providing greater clarity, alongside motivating them to engage with their sales duties. The present study provides some novel findings contributing to the field of sales management, however has multiple limitations. First, although longitudinal in nature, the present study examines only between-person relationships, and should look to understand the within-person relationships to provide further evidence of causality (Childs et al. 2019). Second, the present study only examines the impact of sales anxiety on burnout, future research should seek to understand additional consequences of sales anxiety, alongside further understanding how sales anxiety can be reduced within salespeople. The present study acts as an introduction to understand how the impact anxiety can have on other mental health outcomes within salespeople, and sheds light on the potential dark side of role autonomy in specific circumstances. Further research should look to gain a greater understanding of how anxiety can impact the mental health of the salesforce.

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