Across the pond

The Secrets & Benefits of a Motivational focus


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.

The strategies that help you excel may not help your colleagues or your direct reports; what works for your boss or mentor doesn’t always work for you. Leaders keen to be moreeffective 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, the authors discovered a way of segmenting people on the basis of
a personality attribute that also predicts performance.

Promotion-focused employees see their goals as creating a path to advancement and concentrate on the rewards that will accrue when they achieve them. They’re eager and they play to win. You’ll recognisepromotion-focused people as those who
are comfortable taking chances, who like to work quickly, who dream big and think creatively. Unfortunately, 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’re 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’re vigilant and play to not lose, to hang on to what they have. They’re often more risk-averse, but their work is also more thorough, accurate, and carefully considered. 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.

Simply identifying your own type should help you embrace your strengths as well as recognise 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 organizational 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 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.


The promotion-focused are more engaged when they hear about an inspirational role model, such as a particularly highperforming salesperson or a uniquely effective team leader. The preventionfocused are impressed by a strong cautionary tale about someone whose path. They shouldn’t follow, because thinkingabout avoiding mistakes feels right to them.
As an individual, you naturally pay attention to the kind of story that resonates most with you, but as a colleague or leader, you should think about whether the stories you share with others are motivational for them.
It’s also important to seek out mentors and, when possible, leaders whose focus matches your own. If you’re a leader, subtly adapt your style to suit each employee’s focus. Promotion-minded employees thrive under transformational leaders who support
creative solutions, have a long-term vision, and look for ways to shake things up. The prevention-focused are at their best under transactional leaders who emphasise rules and standards, discourage errors, and focus on reaching more immediate goals.


Even minor tweaks in the language you use to describe a goal can make a difference. Soccer coaches were told to prep their players for penalty kicks with one of two statements: “You are going to shoot five penalties. Your goal is to score at least
three times.” Or “You are going to shoot five penalties. Your obligation is to not miss more than twice.” Players did significantly better when the instructions were framed to match their dominant motivational focus. When offering motivation, the promotion focused on your team will respond better to “If you finish this project by Friday, treat yourself to a long lunch.” Whereas, “If you don’t finish this project by Friday, you’ll have to spend Monday cleaning the supply room” will hit the right motivational cue for the


Once goals are set in a way that creates motivational fit, you must sustain the fit by giving the right kind of feedback. You should always give honest feedback, but you can adjust your emphasis to maximise motivation. Don’t be overly effusive when
praising the prevention-focused, and don’t gloss over mistakes they’ve made or areas that need improvement. Meanwhile, don’t be overly critical when delivering bad news to the promotion-focused – they need reassurance that you have
confidence in their ability and recognise their good work.

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