Guest Column - May/June 2014

The Secrets of Motivational Focus

By Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP


In which kinds of situations are you most effective? What factors strengthen—or undermine—your motivation? People answer these questions very differently, and that's the challenge at the heart of good leadership—whether you're managing your own performance or someone else's. One-size-fits-all principles don't work. The strategies that help you excel may not help your colleagues or your direct reports; what works for your boss or your mentor doesn't always work for you.

We all strive for a harmonious workplace that offers us the opportunity to bring out the best in ourselves and others, and to do meaningful work that we believe is important. However, many of us find something much different—awkward or strained interactions with leaders and colleagues that sap our motivation rather than helping us to excel.

Leaders keen to be more effective in their jobs and to help others reach their full potential can benefit from research on motivational focus, which affects how we approach life's challenges and demands. In Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World to Power Success and Influence, authors Heidi Grant Halvorson (a social psychologist) and E. Tory Higgins (a professor of psychology and management) discovered a way of segmenting people on the basis of a personality attribute that also predicts performance.

Motivational Focus

Promotion-focused employees see their goals as creating a path to gain or advancement and concentrate on the rewards that will accrue when they achieve them. They are eager, and they play to win. You'll recognize promotion-focused people as those who are comfortable taking chances, who like to work quickly, who dream big and think creatively. Unfortunately, all that chance-taking, speedy working and positive thinking makes these individuals more prone to error, less likely to think things through and usually unprepared with a plan B if things go wrong. That's a price they are willing to pay, because for them, the worst thing is a chance not taken, a reward unearned, a failure to advance.

Prevention-focused employees, in contrast, see their goals as responsibilities, and they concentrate on staying safe. They worry about what might go wrong if they don't work hard enough or aren't careful enough. They are vigilant and play to not lose, to hang on to what they have, to maintain the status quo. They are often more risk-averse, but their work is also more thorough, accurate and carefully considered. To succeed, they work slowly and meticulously. They aren't usually the most creative thinkers, but they may have excellent analytical and problem-solving skills. While the promotion-minded generate lots of ideas, good and bad, it often takes someone prevention-minded to tell the difference between the two.

Simply identifying your own type should help you embrace your strengths as well as recognize and compensate for your weaknesses. Although everyone is concerned at various times with both promotion and prevention, most of us have a dominant motivational focus. It affects what we pay attention to, what we value and how we feel when we succeed or fail. And it's why the decisions and preferences of our differently focused colleagues can seem so odd at times.

Both types of employees are crucial for every organization's success. Businesses need to excel at innovation and at maintaining what works, at speed and at accuracy. The key is to understand and embrace our personality types and those of our colleagues, and to bring out the best in each of us.

Once we understand whether colleagues are promotion-focused or prevention-focused, we can speak and work with them in very specific ways that will enhance their motivation. Properly addressing employees' motivational fit enhances and sustains both the eagerness of the promotion-minded and the vigilance of the prevention-minded, making work seem more valuable and boosting both performance and enjoyment.