It has become more American to consume than to think.
With it has come consumerism leadership and the ubiquitous practice of getting buy-in from followers. How ought we understand and put into perspective a mindset of leadership based on consumerism?
Marketing and advertising fuel consumerism. Sellers rely on stories designed to tickle the brain to light up with pleasure, either real, perceived, or expected.
Sellers frequently claim they seek a win-win relationship. A critical assessment of the claim must address the issue of which party defines winning. It is always the seller, never the buyer. Sellers have to close the sale to win, otherwise they lose. Sellers do not receive rewards for sales not made. The definition of win-win can only be understood through the lens of how the seller must win, not through the lens of how the buyer might win.
Selling is not, inherently, a transparent process. It requires a story favorable to the seller. Can you think of an advertisement or sales pitch that encouraged you to carefully consider whether the purchase was really necessary? Have you ever been pointed to a competitor’s product with the hint that it might be better for you?
The Mindset of the Leader as Seller
The overarching mindset of the seller is closing the deal; it is the only way the seller can keep her/his job. A seller’s patience and skill does not change that mindset.
This is likewise true for the consumerism leader. Selling to followers requires a basic indifference to their desires and needs. A key element of selling, no matter how artfully practiced using psychology and brain research, is overcoming objections. There is one and only one goal – make the sale. Helping others has little or nothing to do with selling, despite claims to the contrary. You can test this the next time you are the target of a sales pitch – say to the seller, “My needs and desires would be better met by passing on this offer, thank you” and observe the response.
It has become patriotic to make one’s contribution to the well-being of others by over-spending as much as possible. We’ve been conditioned to respond to advertising and to behave as responsible consumers. Effective messages convince the soul and the mind that it is possible, and desirable, to reward oneself and contribute to the nation by transacting one simple purchase. By extension, followers are encouraged to believe that they are likewise contributing to the best interests of the organization when they buy-in.
The Mindset of the Follower as Buyer
People know when they are being sold. Followers can discern that in a leader, it often being easier to do so in the workplace. The reliance on overcoming objections as the default position of leaders as sellers alert followers they are target of buy-in efforts.
Once consumerism leadership has been established, and leaders expect to gain buy-in from people, it should come as no surprise when followers behave like consumers. What, generally speaking, is typically on a consumer’s mind?
- What’s for sale?
- What is the exchange value?
- What if I want another sales person (leader)?
- I expect a bigger discount.
- I want it in yellow.
- I’ll wait for the end of year sale.
- Do you barter?
- Do you accept coupons?
- I left because I got a better deal elsewhere.
The follower in the workplace brings the same flavor of questions to consumerism leaders.
If the buyer has no choice in the sales process (if the seller is your boss, walking away from the deal is a risky option) s/he tends to develop passive approaches to turning down the sale. There are many: saying yes but meaning no; and unending stream of questions; repeated mistakes while expressing deep frustration and the desire to do better; public words of encouragement combined with private acts of sabotage.
Consumerism leadership sets up the employee buyer as the most important person. Where does that leave the organization’s real customers?
In organizations, oddly enough, the consumer mentality takes a strange twist. Normally the consumer receives something in the exchange, giving up money for some product, tangible or intangible. In organizations followers are often called upon to give something up in the process of buying in. It should come as no surprise that consumerism leadership risks encouraging weak and insincere followers.
The Effects of Consumerism Leadership in the Workplace
More than anything, consumerism leadership dulls the minds of followers. It anchors compliance in the minds of followers, and rarely, if ever, touches people in a way that sparks commitment.
The consumer mentality is such that buyers assume a passive position and simply wait to sift through the barrage of offers that endlessly swirl around them. Buyers are accustomed to tuning out the chatter that holds no interest, quickly assessing offers in terms of its personal value to them, and being manipulated.
Knowing one is being manipulated and agreeing to be swayed by the manipulation is not a contradiction. Being aware of manipulation and making a decision from within that awareness is proof to ourselves that we can, and do, engage in rational decision making.
The worst effect that consumerism leadership has in the workplace is the deepening belief that all important thinking belongs to leaders, and nothing of real importance is required from followers. Think about the looping cycle this creates – consumerism leadership breeds passive followership and lazy minds which in turn reinforces leaders’ belief that followers must be manipulated through sales pitches into going along with the thinking of the leaders (who are the only ones capable of the thinking required).
Why do leaders resort to making sales pitches to the people who rely on their leadership? Is there an alternative? If so, what is it? If consumerism leadership holds that people are unable and/or unwilling to think for themselves and make their own informed decisions, what does the assumption that followers can and want to engage look like? What form does leadership based on treating followers as capable, autonomous thinkers take? What is choice leadership? What is choice followership?