1692 was the year of the Salem Witch Trials. Almost everyone is familiar with the lore of the witch hunt, yet few are aware of the economic, social and political factors that triggered this unfortunate chapter in American history. Ironically, it can teach us some important lessons about business and sales.

Historians and scientists believe that a variety of factors stressed the people of Salem to the flashpoint, causing the community to react irrationally, out of fear. At that time, increasing family sizes were causing competition for resources (land, food, money). There were social and economic pressures caused by an ongoing frontier war. And, there were clashing religious and political ideals as well as diseases that doctors of the day weren’t equipped to understand. Times were changing and difficult, and the community needed answers. And it needed someone, or something, to blame.

When three young girls began exhibiting unexplained symptoms — hallucinations, convulsions, and delusions — hysteria swept through the community and the behaviors were labeled signs of witchcraft. Today, there are many theories attempting to explain these symptoms. One of the most interesting suggests the culprit may have been a simple fungus that grows in rye, a food staple of the day, which is presently known to cause similar reactions. In the end, twenty people were killed and hundreds were accused and imprisoned due to possible gluten intolerance.

Three hundred years later, there’s no witch hunt, but the marketplace is exhibiting many of the same behaviors – panic, scapegoating, and hysterical accusations in the media. What can we, as business owners and sales professionals, take away from all this?

During challenging economic and political times, there is great uncertainty. The “market” (the community) often creates one, or many, scapegoats. This is a coping mechanism to help people feel in control of a chaotic situation. People use scapegoats to manage, avoid or temporarily justify their present plight. It’s easy to blame the opposing political party, lack of infrastructure, the banking system, greed, decision-makers, or even our colleagues, for meager results in this difficult sales environment. But doesn’t that just invite more of the same irrational fear and action of the past? How will tomorrow stand any chance of being different from today? How far off are our reactions and responses from those in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts? We aren’t destined to repeat the past.

Are You Playing the Blame Game?

Ask yourself these four simple questions you can ask yourself, to help you assess your situation and identify whether you’re one of the angry mob or one of the rational thinkers:

  1. Have I jumped on board with the status quo (the market) and allowed my outlook and actions to match the pace of the general business community — simply because I don’t know what else to do?
  2. Am I finding what I expect to find — that is, results that support my foregone conclusions and my situation — instead of pushing myself beyond my comfort zones and finding a way to change the path I’m on?
  3. Am I wasting time trying to identify someone or something to blame, instead of taking responsibility for my own success?
  4. Have I spent enough time taking ownership of my skills and practicing the many things that I may have just taken for granted?

The witch trials lasted just one year, but they had a significant and far-reaching impact. Don’t make the same mistakes as the early settlers. If you want to succeed, take ownership of your efforts, process, and results.