Suicide & The Workplace — Sales Career Truth

Natasha David worked for me ten years ago as Marketing Manager in a technology company where I was Managing Director. One morning I received a call... her husband had died and was in his late twenties. "I'm so, so sorry Tash... what happened?" an awkward silence followed. How do you talk about a loved one who commits suicide? How do you cope with the feelings of guilt about failing to save them or not being close enough to recognize what was about to happen? I felt paralyzed but we did our best to give her all the space and time she needed to be able to manage.

One in five people will suffer from mental illness this year... all of us work with people who suffer from depression, anxiety or other disorders.

Many questions and emotions swam around in my head in the months following this experience. Two years earlier in the same company where Natasha lost her husband, our Professional Services Manager lost his 20 year old son to Leukemia. There was a dramatic relapse just days from the twelve month anniversary of cancer treatment when he would be officially pronounced as being in remission. It was heart wrenching to witness let alone live through. We also supported him by removing all work pressure and providing complete flexibility on full pay for as long as he needed. Without any fuss, his team rallied and covered all work demands. He slowly re-joined work and we were able to tentatively talk about his son with him. There would be stilted conversations and tears but it was okay... all part of the process of creating a meaningful life without his beloved son as well as honoring his son’s memory.

For friends and colleagues, what is the boundary between showing care and prying into someone's personal life when they suffer loss or are seeking to deal with their own demons of depression or other mental illness? Is the workplace somewhere the grieving person goes to escape or can it be a place of healing? Is the workplace where those with invisible disabilities come to hide and deny or can they be accepted and respected?

Suicide seems to be different... a social taboo with stigma attached to the death of a loved one. I never did manage to have a conversation with Natasha; just a few hugs and as much workplace support as I could provide. She withdrew and coped in her own way... I did the same when I lost my mother at 25 – it was at times a dark lonely place. After losing her husband to suicide Natasha was pulled into a dark void and checked herself into hospital where she had a profound realization that can save lives …

The Life Saving Truth: "Suicide only transfers the pain to everyone else."

This something we should all share with anyone we think is in a bad place with depression or other mental health issues. Natasha is one of the most courageous people I have met and she is about to publish her book, Marrying Bipolar. It provides amazing insight for anyone wanting to understand mental illness. Winston Churchill described depression as the black dog but it is far more complex than applying labels.

Natasha decided that if she was to push on, she would make it the best life she could live. She has done exactly that and her book will make a difference in many lives. I'll be at Natasha's book launch at Dymocks in Sydney on April 1st (no joke) and you can sign up for the event here or pre-register for her book, Marrying Bipolar, here.

Natasha's story shows the devastating impact for those around someone suffering from mental illness but what if you are directly managing or working with someone who has a mental illness? I've managed sales people for many years and I am sensitive to the tell-tale signs. I have a personal experience with mental illness as the son and then the business partner of a bi-polar father. Others in my family also suffer from mental illness but I thank God not my wife, children or me.

Professional selling is brutal... it is not for the faint-hearted. High levels of emotional intelligence (EQ), business acumen, strong work ethic and resilience are all essential. I've seen sales people battle through massive highs and devastating lows, damaging the very relationships they need to succeed, going troppo on drugs and alcohol, going missing for days until they emerge from their dark fog.

All this raises two important questions for sales leadership:

  1. Does selling attract those who are inadequately equipped to cope with the demands of the role?
  2. What can sales leaders do to help and manage those in their teams that suffer from a mental illness?

1. Does selling attract people who are poorly equipped psychologically?

The research has evidenced that mental illness does not discriminate by ethnicity, age, gender or career choice (Meadows, Farhall, Fossey, Grigg, McDermott & Singh, 2012). Throughout my professional career, the most common mental condition I have encountered in sales people is bi-polar. This term used to be identified as manic-depression and both are apt descriptions for the huge mood swings that can damage relationships with clients, staff and partners. On top of this they require persistent, consistent management therefore consuming disproportionate amounts of a manager's time and energy. Although anyone with a disability ̶ physical or mental ̶ can be a productive and valued member of a team, they need to find the right job position, have a supportive manager and work environment.

The biggest mistake a manager can make is to hire the wrong person and the second biggest mistake they make is holding onto staff that need to be moved on.

This sounds very harsh but it's a truth all managers must face. The best way to do so is with empathy and compassion in seeking to help people work in roles that best suit them. A lack of compassion combined with relentless pressure and judgment exacerbates the risks and highlights a sales manger’s poor values or interpersonal skills.

Selling is one of the toughest jobs; for anyone to sustain success they need the following attributes:

  • Resilience: The ability to cope with rejection and disappointment amidst relentless pressure to perform and deliver results
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ): The ability to truly understand your personal strengths and weaknesses while being able to read people and politics
  • Good work ethic: The discipline and ethos of doing what it takes rather than your best by committing the required time and energy in paying attention to every detail
  • Curiosity and intelligence: Beyond being smart, this is also being obsessed about the customer's world, how results can be delivered and how risks can be managed
  • Insight and domain knowledge: Specialization in an area that matters to the customer with you being able to provide genuine insight to the people who make decisions.

Track record, qualifications and work history are easy to validate. Every hiring manager needs to go beyond these and be clear about what defines a 'cultural fit' for sales people by evaluating candidates against the above criteria.

2. What can we do to fulfill our duty of care for those who are struggling?

Make no mistake; leadership carries a burden both morally and legally. We have a duty of care to those we employ and to those with whom we share our lives. We need to create person-centered cultures rather than toxic performance-based furnaces. I've written previously about two contrasting corporate cultures (love vs greed) and we need to create environments where work has purpose, value and respect for those around us.

A healthy workplace is a community where employees are valued members of a team rather than mere units of production. Where relationships are real and the corporate values play out in the positive behavior of the leaders.

We need to ask people if they are okay and really mean it. The best way to create a high performance culture is to be authentic about delivering value for clients and building relationships of trust and respect. Executing this requires leaders who are the real deal and able to rally people to their cause; yet becoming a great leader in an inside job rather than projecting a persona.

Capitalism without compassion is commerce without a soul. We all want to make a positive different in the lives of others but not everyone can be a winner who stands on the podium in first place. Great leaders embrace diversity and leverage individual strengths within teams. As a leader, seek balance and value individuals as people who have their own fears and shortcomings as they pursue their aspirations. Have the courage to talk with an employee or colleague about how they are really going with genuine empathy.

Ask 'how are you going... really?' Then listen like you've never listened before. Everyone needs to be heard. Everyone needs someone who cares and believes in them.

For more on this important topic, please read The Darker Side of Selling by my good friend Bernadette McClelland. She provides three examples of the unhealthy pressure and destructive behaviors that plague many sales environments.

If you valued this article, please hit the ‘like' and ‘share’ buttons below. This article was originally published in LinkedIn here where you can comment. Also follow the award winning LinkedIn blog here or visit Tony’s leadership blog at his keynote speaker website:

Reference: Meadows, G., Farrell, J., Fossey, E., Grigg, M., McDermott, F., & Singh, B. (2012). Mental Health in Australia: Collaborative community practice (3rd ed.). South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Main Image Photo by Flickr: Jo Christian Oterhals My heart burns there too