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Addressing Job Stress in the Sales Force

Abstract and Keywords

This article considers the importance of job stress in the sales force to be an important management concern in many sales organizations. The complex business environment faces salespeople with escalating demands and expectations. There is continuous pressure to perform in the sales forces of most organizations. Stress is further compounded as salespeople regularly face non-routine situations, and often must work without the support that comes with supervision on a daily basis. The objective of this article is to examine the antecedents and consequences of job stress and to consider initiatives for reducing job stress among salespeople. While eliminating job stress in most sales organizations may be unfeasible, impractical, or even undesirable, the major negative effects of job stress require management initiatives to gain a reasonable level of control over salespeople's job stress. Finally, this article also develops a framework of salesperson job stress including antecedents, role stressors, and consequences.

Keywords: job stress, salespeople, sales forces, management initiatives, role stressors

10.1 Introduction

Within the sales context, job stress has been defined as “a psychological process wherein a salesperson perceives personal resources as taxed, resulting in an unknown potential for negative outcomes” (Sager and Wilson 1995: 59). Well before the worldwide economic downturn of 2008/2009, there were clear indications that job stress was a widespread problem in sales and other “high‐pressure” occupations. Researchers in the mid‐1990s predicted that job stress would increase, noting that the dynamics of change, lack of employee control, and higher workload were fueling an epidemic in job stress (Cartwright and Cooper 1997). Almost a decade later, Jones, Brown, Zoltners, and Weitz (2005) noted that an increasingly complex business environment, intensifying competition, and pace of change were imposing escalating demands and expectations on salespeople in virtually all industries. For example, new communications technology allows instant contact (p. 254) with customers around the clock. This can be positive, but it also contributes to a stressful environment in which the salesperson is rarely separated from the job. Today's salespeople are working smarter and harder than their predecessors, yet feel the stress of not knowing if their efforts will be sufficient.

Several factors contribute to job stress in sales occupations, including the undeniable pressure to perform at an acceptable level. Salespeople's performance is critical not only to their own success but also to the success of their employers and customers. The inability of salespeople to minimize their responsibilities to significant others contributes to their job stress. Key performance metrics such as sales versus quota are easily observed, while the sometimes excruciating efforts that lead to results are not so easily observed. Stress is further increased as salespeople regularly face non‐routine situations, and often work without the support that comes with supervision on a daily basis. This can create a lack of clarity about how to proceed, thus adding to job stress. Because salespeople occupy boundary‐role positions, additional stress is generated when the demands of customers, employers, and other parties conflict.

Salespeople in many organizations also experience stress due to various forms of work overload. Of particular interest in sales organizations is role overload, which is the perception that role demands are overwhelming relative to available resources (Brown, Jones, and Leigh 2005). Another contributor to salesperson job stress is ethical conflict, which occurs when salespeople face ethical dilemmas on the job (Dubinsky and Ingram 1984, Schwepker, Ferrell, and Ingram 1997). Unfortunately, ethical conflict is a fairly common occurrence in the sales field.

Eliminating job stress in most sales organizations is not feasible, and may not be desirable. Some stress can be positive, as it can improve employee motivation and lead to higher performance levels. Nonetheless, the significant negative effects of excess work‐related stress call for management efforts to achieve a reasonable level of control over salespeople's job stress. Unreasonable levels of job stress can negatively impact individual salesperson performance and lead to excessive employee turnover. Negative customer perceptions and actions can result when salespeople are stressed and exhibit behaviors that are deleterious to the establishment and enhancement of customer relationships. Excess stress can also reduce overall sales force effectiveness and sales manager performance, as dealing with stressed employees can take an inordinate amount of time away from dealing with other crucial matters.

Our objective in this chapter is to summarize three decades of research on job stress in the sales field and offer managerial suggestions for reducing job stress among salespeople. Existing research is used to generate suggested organizational and managerial actions to reduce salespeople's job stress and ultimately improve their job satisfaction and other important job outcomes. Important directions for future research are also identified.

At the outset, it is important to note that this chapter will not consider the medical and healthcare ramifications of job stress among salespeople. Serious (p. 255) physiological problems such as increased blood pressure and heart rate have been associated with occupational stress, as have mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety. Further, some coping behaviors such as excessive drug or alcohol usage have been linked with job stress. We regard these as medical issues that should be addressed with the guidance of medical professionals. Our focus in this chapter will be on the managerial actions, organizational factors, and individual salesperson characteristics that impact job stress in sales organizations, and on how sales managers and sales organizations can reduce excess levels of job stress.

10.2 Research Insights: A Model of Salesperson Job Stress

The model of salesperson job stress shown in Figure 10.1 will guide our summary of existing research. As depicted in the model, salesperson job stress is impacted both directly and indirectly by sales manager leadership behaviors (training, empowerment, control system, etc.), organizational characteristics (culture, climate, span of control, etc.) and salesperson characteristics (e.g. experience, locus of control, self‐efficacy). These antecedents affect two key role stressors, role conflict and role ambiguity, which significantly impact salesperson job stress. Both role stressors and job stress ultimately affect several job consequences (e.g. job satisfaction, performance, motivation). Furthermore, as seen in Figure 10.1 and discussed here, several factors (e.g. upward influence tactics, gender, education) have been found to moderate the relationship between role stressors and job consequences.

10.2.1 Key Stressors: Role Conflict and Role Ambiguity

Research in the sales literature has focused on two primary stressors: role conflict and role ambiguity. An employee sees his or her role as a pattern of expected behaviors. Roles, however, differ from job tasks in that roles are the set of expected behaviors while performing job tasks (cf. Tubre and Collins 2000).

Role conflict develops when two or more role expectations occur simultaneously in which compliance with one would make compliance with the other difficult or impossible (Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoek, and Rosenthal 1964). This construct has been conceptualized in terms of the following five conflict types (cf. Michaels, Day, and Joachimsthaler 1987: 31):

  1. 1. Intrasender: the extent to which two or more role expectations from a single role sender are mutually incompatible.

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    Addressing Job Stress in the Sales ForceClick to view larger

    Fig. 10.1. A Model of Salesperson Job Stress

    (p. 257)
  2. 2. Intersender: the extent to which role expectations from one role sender oppose those from one or more other role senders.

  3. 3. Person–role: the extent to which expectations are incongruent with the orientation of values of the role incumbent.

  4. 4. Interrole: the extent to which expectations for performance of one role are incompatible with the expectations for performance of a different role.

  5. 5. Role overload: the extent to which the various role expectations communicated to a role incumbent exceed the amount of time and resources available for their accomplishment.

In an attempt to measure aspects of person–role conflict commonly found in the sales environment, Chonko, Howell, and Bellenger (1986) developed a measure that assesses the compatibility of the salesperson's expectations with those of his or her supervisor, customers, family, personal principles, and the job itself. They found these to be important dimensions of salesperson role conflict.

Role ambiguity stems from intra‐role stress caused by the lack of information concerning role expectations (Kahn et al. 1964). It is the extent to which one is uncertain regarding expectations about a role, the most appropriate ways to fulfill these expectations, and the consequences of role performance (Behrman and Perreault 1984). Kahn et al. (1964) believe that boundary spanners, who produce innovative solutions to non‐routine problems and face a variety of role expectations from those both inside and outside the organization, are more likely to experience role ambiguity. Salespeople certainly qualify as such individuals.

Like role conflict, ambiguity is believed to have several dimensions. Chonko et al. (1986) developed a scale that measures role ambiguity stemming from five sources: the job, the salesperson's family, supervisor, customers, and the sales organization. Studying boundary spanners, Singh and Rhoads (1991) developed a scale that measures seven distinct facets of boundary role ambiguity. This measure is similar to the Chonko et al. (1986) measure, but does not include the job dimension and adds ethical, co‐worker, and other manager ambiguity dimensions. Salesperson role ambiguity was further partitioned into internal (boss, other managers, co‐workers, company, ethical involving internal role members) and external (family, customer, ethical involving external role members) dimensions (Rhoads, Singh, and Goodell 1994). It appears that salespeople experience more internal than external ambiguity (Rhoads, Singh, and Goodwell 1994).

The relationship between the two role stressors is not clear, as role ambiguity has been found to both positively (Sager 1994, Babakus, Cravens, Johnston, and Moncrief 1999) and negatively (Jaramillo, Mulki, and Solomon 2006) impact role conflict, while role conflict has been found to positively impact role ambiguity (Behrman and Perreault 1984, Johnston, Parasuraman, Futrell, and Black 1990) as well as be positively associated with it (Brown and Peterson 1993, Jones et al. 1996).

(p. 258) 10.2.2 Leadership Behaviors and Role Stressors

The most consistently found antecedent to both role conflict and ambiguity is leadership consideration (Teas 1983, Hampton, Dubinsky, and Skinner 1986, Fry, Futrell, Parasuraman, and Chmielewski 1986, Johnston et al. 1990, Hafer 1986, Agarwal and Ramaswami 1993, Sager 1994, Jones et al. 1996, Sager, Yi, and Futrell 1998). Leadership consideration involves leader behaviors that create a climate of psychological support, mutual trust, helpfulness, and friendliness (House 1971). Salespeople who perceive that such a climate is created by their sales leader will experience less role conflict and ambiguity. One common form of support is sales training (Russ, McNeilly, Comer, and Light 1998). Through training, sales managers have the opportunity to delineate sales roles and clarify desired actions, thus reducing conflict and ambiguity. Researchers (e.g. Russ et al. 1998) who have conceptualized consideration as leader–member exchange quality, in which a superior fosters a relationship with a subordinate that involves mutual trust, respect, and goals, have found similar results.

Leadership role clarity involves the extent to which a sales manager is perceived by salespeople as having clearly established role tasks and performance expectations (Fry et al. 1986). As might be expected, there is an inverse relationship between leadership role clarity and role ambiguity (Fry et al. 1986, Johnston et al. 1990, Tanner, Dunn, and Chonko 1993, Jones et al. 1996), as clearly outlined duties and expectations should result in less ambiguity, at least in terms of these job aspects. Leadership clarity has likewise been found to lead to less role conflict (Fry et al. 1986, Tanner, Dunn, and Chonko 1993).

In addition, when salespeople are allowed to influence decisions about their job (i.e. participation), they are likely to experience less conflict (Teas 1983) and role ambiguity (Teas 1983, 1980, Agarwal and Ramaswami 1993). Specifically, this would include the ability to provide input in formulating standards (Walker, Churchill, and Ford 1975). Perhaps this in part explains why salespeople who feel empowered in the job will experience less conflict and ambiguity (Ruyter, Wetzels, and Feinberg 2001). Moreover, salespeople who are given more autonomy experience less role ambiguity (Hafer 1986, Agarwal and Ramaswami 1993).

Participation involves communication, which has been found to impact role stress. When sales managers use indirect communication to influence salespeople's actions by sharing information and decision‐making responsibility with them, rather than specifically telling them what to do, they can reduce salesperson role ambiguity (Johlke, Duhan, Howell, and Wilkes 2000). Moreover, bidirectional communication between sales manager and salesperson, in which the manager solicits salesperson input and provides task‐related instructions and feedback to salespeople, who in turn respond with their reactions and market feedback, reduces salesperson role ambiguity (Johlke et al. 2000). Communication in terms of feedback regarding job duties is particularly important, as it has been found to reduce salesperson ambiguity (Teas 1983, Agarwal and Ramaswami 1993).

(p. 259) Finally, the sales management control system, level of supervision, and style of leadership also have been examined in relationship to role stress. Management control involves the activities used by sales managers to influence salesperson behavior to achieve organizational objectives (Cravens, Lassk, Low, Marshall, and Moncrief 2004). Research shows that high control systems, those using output (e.g. setting performance standards that are monitored and evaluated), process (e.g. managers influence important sales activities), professional (e.g. encouraging information sharing and cooperation among salespeople), and cultural (e.g. driving behavior through strong shared values and beliefs) controls are more effective at reducing role conflict and role ambiguity than other combinations of control systems (Cravens et al. 2004).

With higher control comes closer supervision. The more closely salespeople are supervised, the lower their role ambiguity (Walker, Churchill, and Ford 1975, Teas 1980, Behrman and Perreault 1984). Conversely it appears that a laissez‐faire style of leadership will result in greater salesperson role conflict (Dubinsky et al. 1995).

Some research has found that salespeople who are supervised by high‐performing sales managers (those classified by the researchers as exhibiting more transactional and transformational leadership behaviors) exhibit less role conflict and less role ambiguity (Russ, McNeilly, and Comer 1996, Dubinsky, Yammarino, Jolson, and Spangler 1995, MacKenzie, Podsakoff, and Rich 2001). While transactional leaders understand what followers want and get it for them in exchange for support, transformational leaders raise the consciousness of followers about the importance of outcomes and how to attain them by going beyond their own self‐interests (Burns 1978). Transactional leadership leans heavily on contingent reward and punishment behaviors (Bryman 1992). The transformational leader, however, motivates one to do more than one would originally expect to do by articulating a vision, fostering the acceptance of group goals, providing an appropriate role model, providing individualized support and intellectual stimulation, and expressing high performance expectations (Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Moorman, and Fetter 1990).

It should be noted, however, that one aspect of transformational leadership, intellectual stimulation, tends to increase role ambiguity (MacKenzie, Podsakoff, and Ahearne 2001). This is not surprising, given that intellectual stimulation involves sales manager behaviors that challenge salespeople to question common work assumptions and to search for creative ways to improve their performance (MacKenzie, Podsakoff, and Ahearne 2001). Such tasks, by nature, are likely to create ambiguity.

10.2.3 Organizational Characteristics and Role Stressors

The firm's organizational structure plays an important role in impacting job stressors. When salespeople have clearly defined roles, tasks, administrative rules, policies, and procedures they tend to experience less role ambiguity (Hampton, Dubinsky, and Skinner 1986, Michaels et al. 1988, Sager, Yi, and Futrell 1998) as they become clear on expectations. However, it is not entirely clear what effect this formalization has on role conflict, as it has been found to both increase (Teas 1983) and decrease it (Michaels et al. 1988, Sager, Yi, and Futrell 1998). While greater formalization may increase role clarity, having to abide by rules that salespeople may believe need to be “bent” to achieve customer satisfaction may result in increased role conflict (Agarwal and Ramaswami 1993). This may be particularly true when the sales position calls for developing and executing innovative solutions to customer problems. In such cases, salespeople may require a great need for flexibility. However, this need for flexibility may conflict with the firm's established rules and procedures. In this case, role conflict is likely to be higher (Behrman and Perreault 1984).

By providing salespeople with autonomy to deal with the unique demands of their role, the organization may be able to diminish role ambiguity (Hafer 1986, Singh 1993). Further, allowing such autonomy may be useful the more salespeople are required to negotiate compromises between the selling company and the customer (i.e. the greater the salesperson integration). This is because there is a positive relationship between salesperson integration and role conflict (Behrman and Perreault 1984). Perhaps additional autonomy is achieved through a greater span of control, which has been found to reduce both role conflict and ambiguity (Avolonitis and Panagopoulos 2007). When designing the structure, keep in mind that outside salespeople tend to experience more role ambiguity than inside salespeople (Tanner, Dunn and Chonko 1993).

Not only must policies and procedures be in place, but it is important for them to be enforced (Agarwal and Ramaswami 1993). Formalization with regard to ethical behavior appears to be particularly important, as it is likely to influence the firm's ethical climate. An ethical climate is believed to exist when the firm has ethical practices and procedures in place, such as ethical codes and ethical policies, which are practiced and enforced (Schwepker, Ferrell, and Ingram 1997). Ethical climate has been found to influence role conflict both directly (Jaramillo et al. 2006) and indirectly, through ethical conflict (differences in shared ethical values between salesperson and sales manager) (Schwepker, Ferrell, and Ingram 1997). An ethical climate should result in less ethical conflict concerning shared ethical values between salespeople and their sales manager. This in turn should result in lower role conflict. Likewise, ethical climate has been found to be inversely related to role ambiguity (Jaramillo et al. 2006). Having guidelines for handling ethical situations provides salespeople with a sense of clarity in a typically “grey” area.

Another critical organizational factor impacting salesperson role stress is the firm's organizational culture. Organizational culture can be defined as “the pattern of shared values and beliefs that help individuals understand organizational functioning and thus provide them norms for behavior in the organization” (Deshpande and Webster 1989: 4). When an organization has a strong culture in which its beliefs and values are widely shared by its members, those members are likely to (p. 261) experience less role conflict and role ambiguity (Barnes, Jackson, Hutt, and Kumar 2006). More specifically, Singh, Verbeke, and Rhoads (1996) found that organizations characterized by high levels of open communication, professional attitude, employee focus, and customer orientation (i.e. an affective archetype) result in boundary spanners who experience less role stress.

10.2.4 Individual Characteristics and Role Stressors

A limited number of individual characteristics have been associated with both role conflict and role ambiguity. Despite one recent study to the contrary (Alvolonitis and Panagopoulos 2007), experience on the job is generally thought to reduce salesperson role conflict (Onyemah 2008, Teas 1983, Walker, Churchill, and Ford 1975) and role ambiguity (Behrman and Perreault 1984, Singh and Rhoads 1991) as salespeople apparently become more familiar with role expectations and how to deal with conflicting demands. Additionally, salespeople who have an internal locus of control are likely to experience less role conflict (Behrman and Perreault 1984) and less ambiguity (Singh and Rhoads 1991) than those with an external locus of control. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe they have the power to influence events in their environment. As such, they tend to be more informed about their role and task environment than do those with an external locus of control (Singh and Rhoads 1991). Finally, salespeople high in self‐efficacy tend to experience less role stress (Mulki, Lassk, and Jaramillo 2008). “Self‐efficacy” relates to an individual's belief in their ability to perform a certain task. Salespeople's confidence in the ability to perform their job is likely to extend to their confidence in understanding role expectations and in effectively dealing with different role demands. Such findings support research showing that salespeople who tend to confront situations head‐on and who tend to transform situations into opportunities are less vulnerable to the effects of role stressors (Onyemah 2008).

Salespeople's level of job involvement also impacts their job stress. Individuals who are involved with their job identify psychologically with it, consider work to be very important, and are impacted personally by it (Dubinsky and Hartley 1986). This involvement leads salespeople to have a clearer grasp of role expectations. As such, highly involved salespeople tend to experience less ambiguity (Dubinsky and Hartley 1986). Furthermore, male salespeople tend to experience less ambiguity than female salespeople (Singh and Rhoads 1991).

10.2.5 Consequences of Role Conflict and Role Ambiguity

Three decades of research indicate that higher levels of role conflict and role ambiguity are generally detrimental to the salesperson and the organization. In (p. 262) our review of sixteen studies over this period, a consistent finding is that salesperson job satisfaction can be increased by diminishing salesperson role conflict (e.g. Bagozzi 1978, Behrman and Perreault 1984, Johnston et al. 1990, Brown and Peterson 1993, Sager 1994, Singh 1998, Jaramillo et al. 2006, Jones, Chonko, Rangarajan, and Roberts 2007). There is also an inverse relationship between role ambiguity and job satisfaction, as indicated in twenty studies over the past three decades (e.g. Busch and Bush 1978, Teas 1980, Hafer and McCuen 1985, Rhoads, Singh, and Goodell 1994, MacKenzie et al. 1998, Johlke et al. 2000, Jaramillo et al. 2006, Singh 1993).

Likewise, both role conflict (Brown and Peterson 1993, Jones et al. 2007, Michaels et al. 1988, MacKenzie, Podsakoff, and Ahearne 1998, Singh 1998) and role ambiguity (Michaels et al. 1988, Johnston et al. 1990, Rhoads, Singh, and Goodell 1994, Agarwal and Ramaswami 1993, MacKenzie, Podsakoff, and Ahearne 1998, Singh 1998, Johlke et al. 2000) are inversely related to organizational commitment. Further, role ambiguity can lead to increased work alienation in which salespeople psychologically detach from their work, give little effort, and focus on extrinsic rewards (Michaels et al. 1988). Although there is little evidence linking role conflict directly to turnover intention (Jones et al. 2007, Nonis, Sager, and Kumar 1996), there is strong support for a positive relationship between role ambiguity and turnover intention (Busch and Bush 1978, Singh and Rhoads 1991, Brown and Peterson 1993, Rhoads et al. 1994, Singh et al. 1996, Jaramillo et al. 2006). Apparently the tension created by the lack of clarity in the salesperson's position makes salespeople lean toward leaving the organization.

Role stressors also impact salesperson motivation and job performance. Although the findings are limited in sales research, it appears that both role conflict (Tyagi 1985) and role ambiguity (Hampton, Dubinsky, and Skinner 1986) can have detrimental effects on salesperson work motivation. While two meta‐analyses examining a variety of occupations find that role stress is negatively related to job performance (Gilboa, Shirom, and Fried 2005, Tubre and Collins 2000), the findings in the sales literature are less clear. Though some recent research suggests that moderate levels of ambiguity and role conflict may be beneficial to performance (Onyemah 2008), overall the results are mixed. In a meta‐analysis of salesperson performance, Churchill et al. (1985) found that role perceptions have the largest average size association with performance. With regards to observed variation in correlations across studies in the meta‐analysis that is real variation (i.e. not attributable to sampling effort), role perceptions rank third in their relationship to performance amongst the variables studied. It is fairly evident that role ambiguity negatively affects performance (Busch and Bush 1978, Behrman and Perreault 1984, Churchill, Ford, Hartley, and Walker 1985, Dubinsky and Hartley 1986, Singh and Rhoads 1991, Hafer 1986, Brown and Peterson 1993, Rhoads, Singh, and Goodell 1994, Singh 1993, Singh, Verbeke, and Rhoads 1996, MacKenzie, Podsakoff, and Ahearne 1998, Singh 1998, Babakus et al. 1999, MacKenzie, Podsakoff, and Rich 2001).

(p. 263) The effect of role conflict is less clear, as it has been found to be both positively (Behrman and Perreault 1984, Dubinsky and Hartley 1986, Singh et al. 1996, Babakus et al. 1999) and negatively (Bagozzi 1978, MacKenzie et al. 1998, Singh 1998) related to performance. Thus, some role conflict may actually be beneficial to salesperson performance. However, if the organization wants its salespeople to practice customer‐oriented selling, in which salespeople focus on satisfying customer needs while attaining firm objectives, it should take steps to reduce role conflict and role ambiguity, as both tend to diminish its application (Flaherty, Dahlstron, and Skinner 1999).

Besides the potentially negative consequences to the organization resulting from role stressors, there are several detrimental individual consequences. Increases in both role conflict (Boles, Johnston and Hair 1997, Babakus et al. 1999) and role ambiguity (Babakus et al. 1999) can result in increases in salesperson emotional exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion, considered a key to job burnout, is characterized by a shortness of energy and the feeling that the individual's emotional “tank” is empty (Babakus et al. 1999). Furthermore, salespeople's conflicting demands tend to bring on greater job anxiety (Fry et al. 1986, Jones et al. 1996), while a lack of role clarity induces greater job tension (Singh and Rhoads 1991, Rhoads, Singh, and Goodell 1994). Role ambiguity likewise negatively impacts specific self‐esteem (Bagozzi 1978), or how well an individual believes that he or she performs required duties of the sales job relative to other salespeople in the company, and positively influences salespeople's perceptions of diminished personal accomplishments (Lewin and Sager 2007).

Role stressors have also been found to affect the use of upward influence tactics by salespeople on their sales managers in an attempt to lessen role stress. Upward influence tactics are means by which salespeople influence their superiors to win their approval. Salespeople who perceive high role conflict use exchange (i.e. remind superior of a prior favor), ingratiation (i.e. act humble, praise superior), coalition‐building (i.e. seek the aid of others to persuade superior), upward appeal (i.e. bypass immediate superior to appeal to higher authority), and assertiveness (i.e. demand or threaten superior) influence tactics more than those who perceive low role conflict (Nonis, Sager, and Kumar 1996). Similarly, salespeople high in role ambiguity are more likely to use exchange, ingratiation, coalition‐building, and assertiveness influence tactics to influence their superior than those with low role ambiguity. Those with low role ambiguity are more likely to use the rationality upward influence tactic (i.e. logical arguments, facts) than those with high role ambiguity (Nonis, Sager, and Kumar 1996).

An important type of role conflict, role overload, has received limited attention in the sales area. Role overload, a form of person–role conflict, amounts to perceptions that role demands are overpowering relative to available capabilities and resources, which results in distraction and stress (Jones et al. 2007). Both role conflict and role ambiguity have been found to positively impact role overload (Mulki et al. 2008). Also, salespeople high in self‐efficacy tend to experience less (p. 264) role overload (Mulki et al. 2008). In turn, role overload has been found to be both positively (Singh 1998) and negatively (Jones et al. 2007) related to organizational commitment, positively related to turnover intentions (Jones et al. 2007) and emotional exhaustion (Lewin and Sager 2007), and negatively related to job motivation (Tyagi 1985), job satisfaction (Jones et al. 2007), pay satisfaction (Mulki et al. 2008), and capability rewards (i.e. rewards based on selling skills) (Mulki et al. 2008).

10.2.6 Additional Antecedents of Job Stress

Although salesperson job stress can be defined in a number of ways, Sager and Wilson (1995: 59) synthesize the varied conceptualizations of job stress and define it as “a psychological process wherein a salesperson perceives personal resources as taxed, resulting in an unknown potential for negative outcomes.” Role conflict and role ambiguity are believed to positively affect job stress (Sager 1994). Research has examined additional antecedents of role stress, several of which are similar to those for role conflict and role ambiguity. In terms of leadership behaviors, sales leaders need to make sure not to overload the salesperson with too many tasks and responsibilities, as this tends to result in greater job stress (Roberts, Lapidus. and Chonko 1997). Moreover, job stress can be reduced when sales leaders make job expectations clear (Tanner, Dunn, and Chonko 1993) and provide appropriate support to salespeople to help them succeed (Roberts, Lapidus, and Chonko 1997).

Several individual characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors have likewise been found to affect salesperson job stress. While several studies have found role stress to negatively impact salesperson job satisfaction, Sager (1994) found job satisfaction to negatively impact job stress. Apparently, more satisfied salespeople will feel less stressed out. Additionally, salespeople who feel more attached to the selling environment and subsequently have greater organizational commitment, job involvement, and growth‐need strength tend to experience less job stress (Sager, Yi, and Futrell 1998). Salespeople high in growth‐need strength want their sales environment to provide them with an opportunity to use and develop personal capabilities (Sager, Yi, and Futrell 1998). As was true with role stressors, salespeople with an internal locus of control likewise experience less job stress than those with an external locus of control. Salespeople's influence strategies also impact their job stress. Salespeople's use of threats and promises leads to greater physical and mental stress, resulting in less influence over the sale. However, the level of felt stress caused by using threats is moderated by a learning orientation (i.e. a strong desire to continuously improve and master selling skills) (McFarland 2003). Finally, the longer salespeople have been on the job with their firm and the greater their income, the less their job stress (Roberts, Lapidus, and Chonko 1997).

(p. 265) 10.2.7 Consequences of Job Stress

Although much of the sales research has focused on role stressors, ambiguity and conflict, some research has found several negative consequences of salesperson job stress. Salespeople who experience job stress tend to be less involved in their jobs, less committed to the organization, and to experience lower levels of work and life satisfaction (Sager 1991a). Moreover, these salespeople do not perform as well (Roberts, Lapidus, and Chonko 1997) and are more likely to leave the organization (Sager 1991b).

While the findings in the sales literature show the negative consequences of job stress, as alluded to in the introduction, some stress can be beneficial. A meta‐analysis of 82 articles comprising 101 samples found that hindrance stressors negatively affect performance both directly and indirectly through negative effects on strains and motivation. Challenge stressors, however, positively affect performance directly and indirectly through their positive impact on motivation, yet they negatively affect performance via their negative impact on strains (i.e. anxiety, exhaustion, depression, and burnout). Hindrance stressors comprise constraints, resource inadequacy, hassles, role conflict, role ambiguity, role dissensus, role interference, role strain, lack of role clarity, role overload, supervisor‐related stress, and organizational politics. Job/role demands, pressure, time urgency, and workload constitute challenge stressors (LePine, Podsakoff, and LePine 2005).

10.2.8 Moderators

A variety of moderators have been found to influence the relationship between role stressors and job‐related outcomes. Several individual factors, including upward influence tactics, gender, and education, are among these moderators. As mentioned earlier, upward influence tactics are means by which salespeople influence their superiors to win their approval. Upward influence tactics ingratiation, assertiveness, and upward appeal moderate the relationship between role ambiguity and satisfaction with a supervisor such that the use of these tactics increases the negative impact of role ambiguity on job satisfaction. In addition, as role ambiguity increases, greater use of ingratiation increases the likelihood that the salesperson intends to quit. When role conflict exists, the more a salesperson uses coalition‐building as an upward influence tactic, the more likely it is he or she will quit (Nonis et al. 1996). When it comes to gender, role ambiguity and role conflict are negatively related to males' satisfaction with work, co‐workers, supervisors, promotion, and policy, but are only negatively related to females' satisfaction with supervisors, co‐workers, promotion, and policy. For females, there is a positive relationship between role ambiguity and supervisor satisfaction. Work/family conflict is negatively related to satisfaction with work, co‐workers, and policy for women, and to increased satisfaction with pay, supervisor, promotion, and policy (p. 266) for men (Boles, Wood, and Johnson 2003). In terms of education, when role ambiguity exists, more educated salespeople are less likely to be committed to the organization than less educated salespeople. Moreover, role conflict is likely to have a greater impact on organizational commitment the higher the level of education of the salesperson (Michaels and Dixon 1994).

A variety of organizational characteristics have been found to act as moderators between role stressors and job‐related outcomes. Role ambiguity's effect on job satisfaction is significantly more dysfunctional for a procedural organizational environment (i.e. one highly focused on processes relative to outcomes and least customer‐oriented) than an affective environment that is characterized by high levels of open communication, professional attitude, employee focus, and customer orientation. However, role ambiguity's effect on performance is more dysfunctional for the affective environment (Singh et al. 1996). The more cohesive the work group, the smaller the negative impact of both role conflict and ambiguity on organizational commitment (Michaels and Dixon 1994).

With regard to structuring the sales position, task variety buffers the negative effects of role conflict on performance, but autonomy enhances the dysfunctional effects of role ambiguity on performance (Singh 1998). Thus, greater task variety may help improve performance, while greater autonomy increases it due to lower role stress. Caution must be given to improving task variety, however, as it enhances the dysfunctional effect of role ambiguity on turnover intentions (Singh 1998).

The research on leadership behaviors as moderators has been limited. It appears that supervisor feedback buffers the negative effects of role conflict on job performance but enhances the dysfunctional effects of role ambiguity on organizational commitment (Singh 1998).

The type of selling job impacts the interrelationships among role stress, affective attitude, and job outcomes of B‐to‐B salespeople such that role stressors have different impacts depending upon whether the selling job is missionary, trade, or technical (Avolonitis and Panagopoulos 2006). While role conflict had no impact on the missionary salesperson's intention to leave the job, its intention on trade salespeople's intention to leave is negative and it is positively related to technical salespeople's turnover intentions. Furthermore, role ambiguity is the only predictor of job performance in the missionary sample, while role conflict significantly affects the performance of technical salespeople (Avolonitis and Panagopoulos 2006). In a related study, it was determined that missionary salespeople experience less job stress than other B‐to‐B salespeople (Avolonitis and Panagopoulos 2007).

Studies examining role overload have found it to be both a moderator and a moderated variable. Role overload refers to the perception of overwhelming role demands relative to available resources (Brown, Jones, and Leigh 2005). When role overload is high, salespeople's perceptions of organizational resources provided by the firm are not related to self‐efficacy, but when role overload is low, (p. 267) organizational resource perceptions are positively related to self‐efficacy. Further, both self‐efficacy and goal level are positively related to performance when role overload is low, but neither is related to performance when role overload is high (Brown et al. 2005). The positive effects achieved on salesperson performance through self‐efficacy and goal setting may be negated by burdening salespeople with too much work and providing them with inadequate resources (Brown, Jones, and Leigh 2005).

In terms of moderators impacting the effect of role overload, experience seems to play a role. Although increased role overload tends to lead to increased turnover intentions, these may be mitigated by sales experience (Jones et al. 2007) and increasing the task variety of the salesperson's job (Singh 1998). In addition, role overload tends to have a more negative impact on the job satisfaction of experienced salespeople (Jones et al. 2007).

10.3 Managerial Implications

The results from our review of previous research provide general directions for actions that sales organizations and sales managers can take to reduce the negative consequences of job stress in the sales force. Research findings are reasonably consistent concerning the linkages between role stressors, job stress, and job consequences (see Figure 10.1). However, the antecedent factors and relationships are less clear due to the large number of potential antecedents, complex antecedent relationships, and limited research attention to some important areas. Although there are no simple actions sales organizations can take to reduce job stress in the sales force, the research literature suggests a number of approaches likely to create an environment that limits salesperson job stress to an acceptable level.

A broad interpretation of these research results indicates that sales organization and management efforts to achieve an effective balance between providing salespeople with direction as to role expectations, but also allowing salespeople reasonable discretion in responding to specific situations, are likely to produce the best results. Although the appropriate balance depends on the unique situation of each sales organization, the research does provide several general guidelines in the leadership, organizational, and individual areas that are potentially applicable to all sales organizations. The critical task is to determine the proper blending of decisions and activities within and across these areas.

It is clear that leadership has a significant impact on salesperson job stress. Sales force control systems and leadership style are particularly important. Low levels of role ambiguity and role conflict are most likely when sales force control systems achieve the appropriate balance between behavioral‐based and outcome‐based (p. 268) orientations. The basic objective is to ensure that salespeople understand the specific behavioral and outcome expectations for performing their job. An effective blend of transactional and transformational leadership styles can also have a significant impact. The use of rewards and punishments (transactional leadership) to clarify job expectations and direct salesperson behavior in conjunction with creating a supportive and trusting climate (transformational leadership) helps salespeople address ambiguity and conflict in their job situations.

Sales organizations also need to determine the proper balance between formalization and flexibility in their structure and policies. One key decision trade‐off is the span of control and level of supervision. The objective is to determine the span of control that will provide the desired level of both sales manager supervision and salesperson empowerment. Sales organization policies need to be scrutinized and revised to ensure the right balance between direction and discretion. Different areas are likely to require different types of policies. For example, ethical policies might be more formalized with specific expectations and little salesperson discretion, as this should result in a more ethical climate and less role stress. Account management policies, in contrast, might provide a basic process framework, but allow salespeople considerable flexibility in the activities used at each stage of this process to develop and maintain account relationships.

Another key organizational aspect driving role stress is the organization's culture. Fostering a strong culture in which the organization's beliefs and values are widely shared by its members should lead to less role stress. In particular, an organization that promotes open communication, a professional attitude, an employee focus, and a customer orientation will find that its salespeople will experience less role stress. Thus the organization must develop and encourage two‐way communication in the organization, so that salespeople are informed but also are given ample opportunity to voice their concerns. Furthermore, training should focus on professionalism in the sales force, as well as actions salespeople should be taking to put the customer first. Finally, the organization needs to engage in activities (e.g. financial and non‐financial rewards) that communicate to its employees that they are valued. Together, these initiatives should help develop a culture that is conducive to less role stress.

The individual factors have somewhat more direct implications. Sales organizations can focus on hiring salespeople less likely to suffer from job stress. One approach is to use psychological tests to identify and then hire applicants who score high in locus of control and self‐efficacy. Another possibility is to hire only experienced salespeople. If this is not desired or possible and inexperienced salespeople are hired, mentor programs might be used. The experienced salespeople can mentor new hires and transfer their insights about how to handle ambiguous and conflicting situations most effectively.

The management implications discussed to this point represent an attempt to create an environment intended to limit or reduce role stress for the entire sales (p. 269) force. Sales managers must also be attuned to specific salespeople experiencing high levels of job stress that are having especially negative consequences. Closer supervision with continuous communication and frequent feedback can help identify salespeople suffering from job stress. Although the appropriate sales management actions depend on each salesperson's situation, coaching and sales training programs can be tailored to the specific needs of individual salespeople and are effective approaches to reducing job stress to a manageable level.

10.4 Directions for Future Research

Over the past three decades, we have learned a great deal about job stress in the sales force. Nevertheless, much remains to be learned. Faced with ever‐increasing demands in a progressively more complex sales environment, salespeople are turning to new technologies to cope. Research is needed to understand the effect of these technologies on salespeople's job stress. For instance, are advanced communication technologies making life less stressful for salespeople or are they actually generating more stress? Such technologies enable salespeople to more easily keep in contact with customers, but consequently they can make it difficult for salespeople to separate work from personal life. Is the relationship between stress and technology impacted by the salesperson's age or even generational group? Perhaps younger salespeople, familiar with the latest technology, are more adept at using technology and thus it creates less stress for them as opposed to those who are not accustomed to using the latest technology. How do we manage the stress associated with this technology?

The impact creating an entrepreneurial sales force may have on salesperson job stress is an area in need of investigation. As organizations create structural changes to compete in today's turbulent competitive environment, there has been a call for a more entrepreneurial organization, and in particular a more entrepreneurial sales force (The Sales Educators 2006). To cope with today's ever‐changing environment, leading‐edge firms are becoming more flexible and adaptable, which creates greater uncertainty. Entrepreneurship by its nature is about creating change—it is disruptive (The Sales Educators 2006). With the fluid roles and uncertainty created by fostering an entrepreneurial sales force, there is ample opportunity for increased role stress. We could benefit from more clearly understanding the dynamics between salesperson entrepreneurial behavior and job stress.

As teamwork continues to play an increasingly vital role in sales organizations, its effects on job stress are little known. Salespeople work as members of teams both formally and informally and within and outside the organization. Teamwork (p. 270) enhances the opportunity for uncertainty and conflicting roles as salespeople try to understand and meet the expectations of different role partners. What type of effect does teamwork have on job stress? How can any negative effects of teamwork on job stress be minimized?

There has been limited research investigating environmental influences on salesperson role stress. Russ et al. (1998) found that positive critical sales events lowered role ambiguity, but had no effect on role conflict. However, negative critical sales events increased both role ambiguity and role conflict. The authors defined a critical sales event as one that is out of the ordinary, and gave facing a significant new competitor as an example of a negative critical sales event. Given this lack of research on the environment, it may be a fruitful area for further research. In their book Achieve Sales Excellence, Stevens and Kinni (2007) point out that salespeople must be easily accessible. Do the demands of the market for greater accessibility generate greater salesperson stress? Does being easily accessible to one customer diminish the salesperson's ability to be easily accessible to another? If so, what impact does this have on role conflict for salespeople trying to effectively meet the needs of multiple demanding customers? How does any resulting stress impact customer relationships? Could these demands, along with the competitive environment, result in greater ethical conflict?

Today's sales force often includes multiple generations (e.g. boomers, generation X, generation Y) who bring differing values, attitudes, and interpersonal styles to the workplace. What are the effects of generational differences on role stress across organizational members as salespeople work with others within the organization? While generational differences may cause stress in teamwork, the relationship between salesperson job stress and teamwork dynamics in general needs further investigation. Moreover, does role stress result from salespeople working with customers across different generations? Given that different generations tend to operate under different value sets, could conflict between salespeople and customers of different generations result, ultimately impacting job stress?

There is an increasing need for sales specialists, and salespeople are being required to possess in‐depth specialized knowledge. Undoubtedly such knowledge can assist the salesperson in creating customer value. Little is known regarding how the demands to provide additional value beyond the basic product or service affect salesperson job stress. Salespeople add value in many ways, including serving as advocates for customers to ensure their desired results. In doing so, conflicts may arise. As much as 50–60 percent of a salesperson's time is spent resolving customer problems caused or left unresolved by the salesperson's company (Stevens and Kinni 2007). Are these conflicts between the salesperson's desire to satisfy the customer and the problems caused by the salesperson's company creating undue stress? Which types of conflict are likely to result in the greatest stress?

There are several different approaches (e.g. stimulus response, mental states, need satisfaction, problem solving, consultative) to personal selling. Furthermore, (p. 271) some salespeople practice adaptive selling in which they alter their sales messages and behaviors during a sales presentation or as they encounter unique sales situations and customers. We do not know, however, how these approaches and behaviors affect salesperson job stress. Does the use of certain approaches result in greater job stress? What factors would affect the stress level associated with the use of each approach (e.g. is proper training simply the key to stress reduction with any approach?)? Furthermore, do salespeople who practice adaptive selling experience lower levels of stress?

Most of the sales research focuses on the negative consequences associated with salesperson job stress. Hence, there is a need to more closely examine stressors that may contribute to positive job outcomes. Challenge stressors (i.e. job/role demands, pressure, time urgency, and workload) have been found to positively impact performance and motivation (LePine, Podsakoff, and LePine 2005) in a variety of occupational settings. Yet the sales literature is remiss in examining their impact in a sales setting. We could greatly benefit by learning the effects of such factors on role stress so that positive stress (i.e. eustress) can be promoted to maximize salesperson effectiveness.

Job stress in the sales force is an increasingly important issue for sales organizations around the world. The global economic downturn, the complex and rapidly changing business environment, increased intensity of competition worldwide, and continuous introduction of new technologies will expand the job stress associated with sales jobs. Salesperson job stress research has increased our understanding of this important area and provided sales organizations with general guidelines to address this critical challenge. However, more research is needed to build on the current knowledge base, and to begin to address the impact of new trends on salesperson job stress relationships.

10.5 Summary and Conclusions

Job stress is a widespread and increasing problem in sales occupations. Excessive job stress has a negative relationship with a number of important salesperson job consequences. Fortunately, this area has received considerable attention from sales researchers. Our Model of Salesperson Job Stress (see Figure 10.1) provides a framework for organizing important job stress relationships. Based on this framework, we reviewed previous research results, discussed key findings, suggested important managerial implications, and suggested future research directions.

Considerable research has found that role conflict and role ambiguity are major determinants of salesperson job stress. Research also indicates that various (p. 272) leadership behaviors, organizational characteristics, and personal characteristics are antecedents to salesperson role conflict and role ambiguity, but also have a direct effect on job stress. In addition to a direct effect on job stress, role conflict and role ambiguity are related to various job consequences, with these relationships moderated by a number of personal and organizational factors.

These research results provide several management guidelines for sales organizations trying to limit salesperson job stress to acceptable levels. Among the most important management implications are the need for sales organizations to find an effective balance between providing salespeople with direction as to role expectations and discretion in responding to specific situations, between behavioral‐based and outcome‐based sales force control systems, between transformational and transactional leadership approaches, and between formalization and flexibility in sales organization structure and policies. Recruiting efforts to hire salespeople high in locus of control and self‐efficacy, and coaching efforts to deal effectively with salespeople experiencing high job stress, are also important management actions suggested by research results.

Although previous research has improved our understanding of salesperson job stress relationships, there are many opportunities for future research efforts. Especially important issues needing attention are the effect of new and emerging technologies, environmental influences such as critical sales events, generational differences within sales organizations, developing an entrepreneurial sales organization, increasing teamwork within sales organizations, and the impact of different sales approaches on salesperson job stress. Sales researchers need to build on the strong foundation of past research and expand salesperson job stress research to address critical issues facing contemporary sales organizations. This research would expand the knowledge base on salesperson job stress, and provide important implications for managing salesperson job stress in the future.


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