This article is part of our Key Fundamentals of IMPACT Selling® series.
Mental Models, Cognitive Tunneling, and the Crisis of Qantas Flight 32
On November 4, 2010, Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny entered the cockpit of an Airbus A380 headed from Singapore to Sydney, Australia. Qantas Flight 32’s routine takeoff quickly escalated into an emergency that de Crespigny, his 29-person crew, and 440 passengers will never forget.
Just four minutes in, as de Crespigny was about to turn off the “fasten seatbelt” sign, he heard two loud booms. He described them as “thousands of marbles being thrown into the hull of the plane.”
An oil fire in one of the left engines caused a turbine disk to detach from the drive shaft. It broke into three large pieces and exploded through the left wing. As alarms blared throughout the cockpit, the computer issued automated commands on how to fix the issue. Twenty-one of the plane’s 22 major systems were either partially damaged or fully disabled, so a cascade of commands just kept on coming.
For 20 minutes, the pilots were overwhelmed responding to the computer’s step-by-step instructions. With so many issues to focus on, it became impossible to focus on anything. Trying to narrow their attention and react to what seemed most urgent was a natural and logical response.
Using Mental Models To Snap Out of Cognitive Tunneling
Cognitive tunneling is the psychological term that describes a person myopically turning their attention to one thing as a means of coping with a highly stressful situation. This can happen to salespeople and sales leaders in a tumultuous selling environment just as easily as it can happen to a pilot during a mid-flight emergency.
Imagine your sales team is having trouble closing deals in late stages. They offer you a myriad of reasons why customers simply aren’t buying. What do you do? What do you fix first? Let’s return to Flight 32 for a little insight.
De Crespigny felt cognitive tunneling setting in but knew he had to fight it. The plane was off balance because fuel was leaking from the left engines. When the onboard computer told the pilots to transfer fuel between the wings to steady the plane’s weight, a co-pilot (stuck in his own cognitive tunnel) began to comply with the instructions. De Crespigny ordered him to stop. Despite the computer’s logic, it simply didn’t make sense to transfer fuel out of a fully functional engine into one that was leaking.
“Let’s keep this simple” de Crespigny said, as he began listing what wasn’t working on the plane. As he shifted his attention to everything that still did work, he was reminded of a Cessna, the first plane he ever flew.
The A380 is a gigantic “flying city” but still has the same core components and follows the same principles as a Cessna. De Crespigny decided to stop focusing on the computer’s instructions and blaring alarms. Instead, he returned to the fundamentals of flying and imagined he was piloting the smaller, simpler plane.
“I had a picture in my head that contained the basics, and that’s all I needed,” de Crespigny said.
In his book, “Smarter Faster Better,” Charles Duhigg writes “Mental models help us by providing a scaffold for the torrent of information that constantly surrounds us. Models help us choose where to direct our attention, so we can make decisions, rather than just react.”
The Fundamentals of Selling
When sales drop and nothing seems to be working, sales leaders need to be careful not to disregard the basics. True, some agility is needed as environments change but not at the cost of resilience in maintaining principles of selling that work consistently through changing situations.
Sales leaders should remember that team members tend to react poorly in two ways when given urgent commands in stressful situations: (1) they execute the command, but do so poorly because they don’t feel confidence or ownership over it, or (2) they ignore it entirely because they disagree.
The better path is for sales leaders to consistently reinforce core principles that sellers can pull from and apply, using their own judgment and autonomy when times get stressful. Here are a few ideas for doing this:
1. Know what good looks like.
As a manager, you need a strong mental model of what good sales behavior looks like. This helps you observe it, reinforce it, and coach around it to build situational judgment and confidence in your sellers. This way, they have the tools needed to address situations as they arise, and they won’t flail around or freeze up in search of guidance. You want them to think like Star Trek’s Captain Kirk in stressful situations: “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do, I only know what I can do.” I’m confident in my instincts because they are founded on fundamental principles that work.
2. Support self-discovery.
Help each team member self-discover where they stand relative to selling fundamentals. This is done in post-call debriefs where you ask open-ended questions to help the seller self-diagnose which actions and behaviors went well and which did not go so well. But the right assessment tools can also be helpful in self-discovery. The Brooks Group has developed tools like the Brooks Talent Index and the IMPACT Selling Skills Index® to give an objective view of behavior and communication styles, motivations, personal skills, and tacit knowledge of selling theory. These assessments help sellers better understand themselves and where they are weak or strong, so they can focus on their development in the right places.
3. Follow up and confirm changes in behavior.
Strengthening a sales fundamentals skill set takes time and sustained effort. Leaders should encourage continuous learning and practice. People love positive reinforcement and measuring their progress over time. Sales leaders who can highlight improvements the team is making are building the confidence individuals need to react appropriately in tricky situations.
Trust Your Instincts if You Have the Right Instincts
De Crespigny saved 469 lives (including his own) because he focused his attention on a mental model and the fundamentals of flying that he knew could enable him to land the broken plane.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be writing about the Keys to IMPACT Selling®, where we’ll share insights from our award-winning sales training that has proven itself successful during decades of varying sales environments.
Your mind needs something to fixate on when it’s overly stressed out. Not knowing what to do isn’t an option. Refocus your attention on the fundamentals of selling with the six core steps of the IMPACT Selling® System:
No matter how tenured or capable your people are, everyone has a blind spot. Salespeople need to reevaluate their skills, so they calibrate anything that’s off and build the confidence and capability to be both agile and resilient in uncertain times.