At a Sales Performance Association (SPA) seminar given this week with the author Simon Hazeldine talking to us about the role of neuroscience in selling one of the key messages was how buying decisions tend to be based on emotion, rather than rational logic. This idea has been around for a while, but what struck me the most was a contributor to our group discussion who claimed that the three most important emotions were fear, greed and ego.

A quick trawl around the web has uncovered this article, which claims there are six emotions that drive buying decisions, two of them being fear and greed, but ego is not amongst them. Where you do find talk of fear, greed and ego driving decisions is on articles such as this one which focus on what drives the decisions made by stock market traders in their high risk game.

I can go along with the notion that fear drives many of our decisions; after all it reflects the primal fight or flight reaction. Greed too, I can buy as an emotional driver. But ego? The problem for me is that I don’t regard ego as an emotion, and this point was made within our group. Go to the online dictionaries for a definition and you will find words like “sense of self” or “personal identity”; or “the conscious mind that creates a sense of self”. You will also find definitions that relate to “self esteem” or “self importance”. In English we talk about somebody with a big ego having an inflated view of their self importance. Often that seemingly over-inflated ego hides a very fragile ego state beneath.

And this brings me to my point. I have long regarded the need for ego preservation as being a key driver of human behaviour. We all have a need to feel good about ourselves. Often that good feeling comes from our interaction with other people. If people respond to us in a positive way, that boosts the ego; negative responses tend to deflate it. Back in the days when we all lived in caves our conscious mind was very focused on survival, and survival meant being part of the group. Cast out on our own we would face almost certain death. A rejected ego is therefore an unhappy and threatened ego.

Rejection is what sales people face all the time. The reason why so many sales people appear to have an over-inflated ego is probably to protect the ego state beneath that lives in constant fear of being rejected. Although we refer to the ego as the conscious mind I sometimes think it plays unconscious games with our behaviour. Take the number of sales people who go into a sales call with a carefully planned strategy that involves asking the customer lots of questions, jointly exploring needs, etc. yet when it comes to the actual call all they can do is sit there and talk features. Often this response is generated by the customer’s behaviour, especially if they are being what in Huthwaite we call a “low reactor”.

Observers and coaches of these calls come out in a state of disbelief. Why did the sales person change tactics? Why did they suddenly rush into a feature presentation instead of following the carefully thought through range of questioning options and potential lines of enquiry? My answer: the ego took over. Faced with a stressful situation, and the fear of it all going wrong and being rejected, the sales person fell back onto a set of behaviours that felt natural and comfortable, and enabled them to feel good about themselves, albeit momentarily. That’s ego preservation at work. Yes, it’s driven by emotions and those emotions will include fear and greed. But ego is more than just emotion; it is a fundamental part of our human psyche.

Janet Curran, Head of Thought Leadership, Huthwaite International