Effects of Sales Managers’ Leadership Worthiness on Salesperson Turnover

December 1, 2022

Vishag Badrinarayanan, PhD, Aditya Gupta, PhD, and Nawar N. Chaker, PhD

Salesperson turnover is an important issue for organizations, not only due to its financial and operational impact, but also for its potential to weaken internal and external relationships. Previous research has investigated individual, organizational, and workplace related causes of salesperson turnover. Building on the familiar saying “People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses,” our study proposes a new concept, sales managers’ leadership worthiness, and demonstrates that perceived leadership worthiness increases salespersons’ trust in and identification with their managers and, ultimately, reduces turnover intentions.

Stock Image of Man and Woman in Business Attire Sitting in Office and Looking at Laptop Together. Man Is Pointing To the Laptop Screen As Woman Looks on Intently

Defining Leadership Worthiness

Previous research has indicated that worthy leadership consists of three dimensions: capacity to lead, commitment to lead, and character to lead.1 Extending these dimensions to the sales context, our study defines sales managers’ leadership worthiness in terms of three factors: (1) competence, (2) charisma, and (3) behavioral integrity.

  • Competence is salespeople’s perceptions of managers’ abilities that signal that managers have enough knowledge and can function effectively to assist their subordinates.2 Thus, competence captures a managerial capacity to be worthy leaders.   
  • Charisma is salespeople’s perceptions of managers’ abilities to inspire subordinates to work diligently to achieve organizational and sales goals, while being observant enough to understand the needs of their followers.3 Thus, charisma captures a managerial commitment to exercise worthy leadership.  
  • Behavioral integrity refers to salespeople’s perceptions of the consistency between their managers’ values and behaviors, as well as managers’ tendency to act ethically and respectfully. Thus, behavioral integrity captures managerial character to be worthy leaders.   

Although the standalone impact of these factors on certain organizational outcomes has been previously studied, our objective was to determine their collective impact on salesperson turnover intentions.

Leadership Worthiness and Salesperson Turnover Intentions

Our study first hypothesized that sales managers’ leadership worthiness would negatively impact salesperson turnover intentions; in other words, the more worthy a leader is perceived to be, the less likely salespeople will experience turnover intentions. Salespeople are more likely to approach worthy leaders for guidance.4 Through this guidance, salespeople have support when problems arise, resulting in less job stress, higher job confidence, and organizational commitment.5 Our results indicate that there is a significant negative correlation between leadership worthiness and salesperson turnover intentions, confirming our hypothesis. As discussed next, our study went further to examine the underlining mechanisms by which sales managers’ leadership worthiness impacts salesperson turnover intentions. 

Salesperson Identification with and Trust in Managers as Mechanisms

Psychological identification, or a perceived sense of oneness, occurs when an individual recognizes and values the attributes of another individual. Identification leads to defining oneself in terms of another individual, which brings about better cooperation and receptivity to that individual’s influence. Accordingly, when a salesperson identifies with a sales manager, it can positively influence job-related outcomes, such as increasing the salesperson’s desire to support the manager, job satisfaction, and overall job performance.6

When salespeople perceive their manager to be competent and charismatic, favorable evaluations of the manager may create a desire to internalize and respond to the manager’s attributes. This desire can then be manifested through identification and result in the manager being viewed as a role model for the salesperson. Perceptions of behavioral integrity also play a key role in this process by fostering an environment of psychological safety and creating identity security.7 The results of our study show that sales managers’ leadership worthiness positively influences salesperson identification with managers and that, in turn, salesperson identification negatively influences salesperson turnover intentions. These results support the idea that salesperson identification with managers is one mechanism by which leadership worthiness indirectly impacts salesperson turnover intentions.

A second mechanism explored is salesperson trust in their managers. With managers and salespeople working together constantly and interdependently, trust is a vital component of effective relationships. Previous research has shown that subordinate trust in leaders increases positive outcomes, such as satisfaction and performance, and reduces negative outcomes, such as intention to quit.8,9 Our results demonstrate a positive relationship between sales managers’ leadership worthiness and salesperson’s trust in their sales managers. Due to their distinctive characteristics, worthy leaders cultivate trust through offering support and guidance, promoting shared vision, and exhibiting moral character. Results also show a positive relationship between salesperson trust in managers and identification with the sales manager, supporting the notion that employees are more likely to form bonds that foster identification when they trust their leaders.10 Finally, consistent with prior research, our results show a negative relationship between salesperson trust in the sales manager and turnover intentions, suggesting that trusted managers can reduce subordinates’ desire to leave an organization.

Gratitude as a Moderator

The moderating impact of a salesperson’s gratitude toward the sales manager builds on the idea that “attributions are the causal explanations that individuals use to interpret the world around them and adapt to their environment.”

Stock Image of Man and Woman in Business Offce Smiling and Fistbumping. Both Are Standing at a Work Desk in Front of a Laptop and Papers on the Desk

1 Along these lines, gratitude, a positive emotion which stems from an experience-based attribution of past performance to the manager, would help to improve interpersonal relationships between salespeople and their managers. Our study shows that gratitude negatively moderates the relationship between leadership worthiness and employee turnover intentions, suggesting that leadership worthiness leads to lower (higher) turnover intention when gratitude is higher (lower). Further, we find significant support for gratitude as a positive moderator between sales managers’ leadership worthiness and salesperson identification with sales managers, indicating that leadership worthiness leads to higher (lower) identification with sales managers when gratitude is (lower) higher. However, we do not find significant support for the positive moderating effect of gratitude on the relationship between sales managers’ leadership worthiness and trust in sales managers.

Collectively, our study provides additional insights regarding how sales managers’ leadership worthiness may exert a “pull-to-stay” effect (an impact that minimizes salesperson turnover intentions) and the pathways of identification with the manager and trust in the manager that leadership worthiness works through in reducing turnover intentions. Additionally, we also establish the importance of gratitude of the salesperson towards their sales manager. Specifically, this study underscores how salespeople’s perceptions of middle management (sales managers) can have an impact on the decision to stay with a company.

Implications for Managers

This study shows how sales managers can develop leadership characteristics and interpersonal relationships to reduce salesperson turnover intentions. First, by understanding how leadership worthiness negatively influences turnover intentions, managers can work to improve their competence, charismatic influence, and behavioral integrity. Specifically in the real estate realm, it is important for managers to be knowledgeable about the current real estate market and be cognizant about challenges that their real estate agents are commonly dealing with. They need to inspire performance toward a collective goal by balancing the needs of the salespeople with the business objectives. In their interaction with salespeople, managers need to “walk the talk” and demonstrate consistent, equitable, and honest behaviors. The combination of these characteristics contributes to perceptions of leadership worthiness, which creates better relationships between managers or team leaders and their agents by creating a space where employees feel safe enough to share concerns and ask for help, thereby, reducing agent turnover intentions.

While applicable to all managers, these results are especially important for middle managers, who have the greatest amount of interaction with agents. For upper managers, the three factors of competence, charisma, and behavioral integrity should be used as core considerations during the hiring process of middle management. These factors should also be integrated in training and in evaluating the performance of managers. Additionally, these perceptions of managers can be periodically assessed among employees to monitor their perceptions of leadership and manage agent turnover intentions.

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Recommended Reading

Badrinarayanan, Vishag, Aditya Gupta, and Nawar N. Chaker (2021), “The Pull-to-Stay Effect: Influence of Sales Managers’ Leadership Worthiness on Salesperson Turnover Intentions,” Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 41(1), 39-55.

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  8. Colquitt, Jason A., Brent A. Scott, and Jeffery A. LePine (2007), “Trust, Trustworthiness, and Trust Propensity: A Meta-Analytic Test of Their Unique Relationships with Risk Taking and Job Performance,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(4), 909-927.
  9. Dirks, Kurt T. and Donald L. Ferrin (2002), “Trust in Leadership: Meta-Analytic Findings and Implications for Research and Practice,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 611-628.
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About the Authors

Vishag Badrinarayanan, PhD
Professor, Texas State University

Dr. Vishag Badrinarayanan’s (PhD – Texas Tech University) research interests focus on sales management, marketing strategy, brand strategy and retail strategy. His research has been published in journals such as the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, and European Journal of Marketing, among others. Dr. Badrinarayanan also serves as an Editorial Review Board Member for the Journal of Business Research, Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, and European Journal of Marketing.

Aditya Gupta, PhD
Assistant Professor, Texas State University

Dr. Aditya Gupta (PhD – Pennsylvania State University) has specific research interests in the areas of inter-firm relationships, sales management, key account management, business to business markets, and application of social network analysis to B2B market problems. Dr. Gupta has published his findings in the Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, and Journal of Business Research. In addition to Dr. Gupta’s research and academic work, he also serves on the editorial review board of the Journal of Academy of Marketing Science.

Nawar N. Chaker, PhD
Assistant Professor of Marketing and Director of Research, Professional Sales Institute, Louisiana State University
Dr. Nawar N. Chaker (PhD – University of Tennessee) has industry experience in marketing, sales, distribution, and engineering. His experiences have primarily been in professional sales, where he previously worked for two Fortune 100 companies. His research interests include drivers of salesperson performance, emotions in sales, salesperson-sales manager interface, cross-functional sales relationships, and frontline employee management. His research has appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Service Research, Decision Sciences, Journal of Business Ethics, Industrial Marketing Management, and Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, among others. In addition, Dr. Chaker also serves as an Editorial Review Board member for the Journal of Business Research, Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, and the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice.