Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it – according to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Motivation is the key to everything we do in life, from hauling ourselves out of bed to volunteering, going for a jog or saving some money. But how can you use science and psychology to motivate people based on the type of motivation they respond to? And how do you identify the different types of personalities in your workplace?

As well as introverts and extroverts, shy and loud, experienced and new – you also have two other types of personality that are motivated very differently: Prevention focused, and promotion focused. Coined by Tony Higgins with some seriously meaty papers around the theory and psychological tests, it’s pretty reasonable to understand – you’re either fleeing from the stick or running to the carrot of praise.

Carrot or the stick?

You might know from your own attempts at healthy living, for example, that your motivational state is rooted in one of two objectives: what you want to obtain or achieve – promotion focused,  or what you want to avoid – prevention focused. sometimes, that goes up and down.

Sometimes people ask – what’s the best way to motivate? Is it the carrot – or is it the stick? Sometimes, it’s changeable. If the idea of standing in your swimming trunks brings you into cold sweats – you might avoid sticky buns by thinking about your mates making fun of you, but maybe a few days later you’ll get yourself out for a run by imagining how great you’re going to look soon – or the compliments you’ll get, the admiring glances… Motivation is fluid which is why it can be tricky for any workplace to harness one method of getting people into gear.Having a few superstars going great guns is better than a plodding workforce, but

Having a few superstars going great guns is better than a plodding workforce, but one strategy isn’t going to fit all. If you’ve been trying to reward people and found you have poor results – could this be why?

Your company can define how you motivate

A great paper –  Regulatory Focus Theory: Implications for the Study of Emotions at Work Joel Brockner and E. Tory Higgins has covered this in depth and it has found that people are not only one way or the other from a random factor, but they are driven to be motivated one way or another  through the company culture itself.

“The goals and values in certain kinds of organisations are inherently prevention focused. For example, in electrical utility companies attaining the goal of profitability depends on their ability to “keep the meters running” by preventing power outages.

Tracie Bagans, a manager at Florida Power & Light remarked,

“When people go home at night and turn on their lights, nobody calls to congratulate us. It’s when power is lost that we receive feedback (big time!) from customers that they are not happy.”

Thus, the activities of many employees at the company consist of the process of trying to prevent circumstances that create power outages. In contrast, the values and norms in an entrepreneurial start-up company are apt to elicit in employees a promotion focus, as they engage in the process of trying to help the company reach its goals.

Such companies often reflect the vision, dreams, and ideals of their founders. To the extent that (attempting to realise) the idealistic vision of the founder has become part of the company’s culture, organization members are likely to adopt a promotion focus.

In short – if your whole reason for being is to prevent things happening, motivating people for just doing this should be enough. In the electricity example, a full 30 days of no outages being rewarded will no doubt go down a lot better than a reward to encourage innovation.

Does it matter how your people are motivated? 

Whilst we will come to how to reward the different types in a second – let’s talk favourites. Is a workforce of preventative people better than promotion-focused people? Is it better to have the giddy Tiggers or the gloomy Eeyores?

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson is the Associate Director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School thinks, no:

“The truth is, both kinds of motivation can bring you success, and each has its pitfalls. Each brings something of value (e.g., bold solutions, attention to detail) to your organisation. In fact, no organisation can truly thrive without a balance of promotion and prevention motivation – to keep you moving forward while maintaining the progress you’ve already made.”

How do you motivate?

Higgins explains: “When promotion focused, people are motivated by growth and development needs in which they attempt to bring their actual selves (their behaviors and self-conceptions) in alignment with their ideal selves (self-standards based on wishes and aspirations of how they would like to be). When prevention focused, people are responsive to security needs in which they try to match their actual selves with their ought selves (self-standards based on felt duties and responsibilities)” –

Does this mean you need a different motivational style to your best friend in Company X? Maybe.


In Motivation by Positive or Negative Role Models: Regulatory Focus Determines Who Will Best Inspire Us by Penelope Lockwood, Christian H. Jordan and Ziva Kunda they suggest that Promotion-focused individuals, who favor a strategy of pursuing desirable outcomes, are most inspired by positive role models, who highlight strategies for achieving success; prevention-focused individuals, who favor a strategy of avoiding undesirable outcomes, are most motivated by negative role models, who highlight strategies for avoiding failure.”

It adds “reflecting on possible feared selves by imagining a narrowly avoided misfortune can lead to an increase in the motivation to avoid such misfortunes in the future and can increase intentions to pursue appropriate avoidance strategies (McMullen & Markman, 2000)”.

This might mean that to motivate someone promotion focused you bring in an external speaker or coach, or celebrate peer success with a recognition platform. If your workplace is prevention focused, perhaps a regular period of reflection of mistakes or errors and correction strategies could be helpful.

Work tasks

Promotion-focused people respond best to optimism and praise, are more likely to take chances and seize opportunities and get stuck in. They probably don’t dot the i’s and cross the T’s. As you can imagine, the prevention-focused have the looming possibility of failure above them and are may be more motivated by a shorter ‘must do’ to do list. Facing a ‘creative wall’ of ‘future ideas’ would probably be the final straw for someone who wants to get the job at hand done perfectly. A structural engineer will no doubt not be inspired by such a list, but will instead have all her brainpower dedicated to makings safe bridges. The motivation for this person is the finished result.

Motivating in a Prevention Focused Workplace

  • Make clear instructions as to what employees need to do and why it matters
  • Show them the impact they have in the organsition – and show others. Let them know they are important.
  • Peer to peer recognition will suit in this environment
  • Long service awards will be highly valued for showing a summary of their strengths, day in, day out
  • Reflection and looking back at anyareas for improvement will motivate and help ‘kick start’
  • Consider showing the behaviours you don’t want as well as the ones you do want
  • Security is key. You may wish to promote benefits that offer security or savings.

Motivating in a Promotion Focused Workplace

  • Check in more frequently. Motivate regaulrly- this is the kind of place where spot rewards thrive.
  • Big ticket initiatives that inspire will work well here – holidays, cars, titles
  • Bring in an external coach to inspire and motivate
  • Show and sell the dream!
  • Recognise publicly with a peer to peer system or ceremonies
  • Your rewards may be better focused on luxury or ‘want’ items

What kind of workplace do you work in? Let us know on Twitter!


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