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Do you play to win or to not lose?

Heidi Grant Halvorson and
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Promotion-focused people are more motivated when they are assured that they are on target to reach a goal. For prevention-focused people, being assured of success undermines their motivation. Both are legitimate ways of looking at the same goal.

In what kinds of situations are you most effective? What factors strengthen — or undermine — your motivation? People answer these questions in very different ways, and that’s the challenge at the heart of good management. One-size-fits-all principles don’t work. Personality matters.

In business the most common tool for identifying one’s personality type is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. But the problem with this and many other assessment tools is that they don’t actually predict performance.

These tests will tell you about attributes that indicate what you like to do, but they tell you very little about whether you are good at it, or how to improve if you’re not.

Fortunately, there is a way of grouping people into types on the basis of a personality attribute that does predict performance: promotion focus or prevention focus.

Although these types are well-known among academic psychologists and marketing and management researchers, word has not yet filtered down to the people who we believe could benefit most: managers keen to be more effective in their jobs and to help others reach their full potential as well.

Two types

Motivational focus affects how we approach life’s challenges and demands. Promotion-focused people see their goals as creating a path to gain or advancement and concentrate on the rewards that will accrue when they achieve them. Promotion-focused people are comfortable taking chances, like to work quickly, 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 the promotion-focused, the worst thing is a chance not taken, a reward unearned, a failure to advance.

Prevention-focused people, 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. Although everyone is concerned at various times with both promotion and prevention, most of us have a dominant motivational focus. Here are some signs to look for in yourself or your colleagues:

Promotion-focused people

Work quickly

Consider lots of alternatives and are great brainstormers

Are open to new opportunities

Are optimists

Plan only for best-case scenarios

Seek positive feedback and lose steam without it

Feel dejected or depressed when things go wrong

Prevention-focused people

Work slowly and deliberately

Tend to be accurate

Are prepared for the worst

Are stressed by short deadlines

Stick to tried-and-true ways of doing things

Are uncomfortable with praise or optimism

Feel worried or anxious when things go wrong

Simply identifying your own type should help you embrace your strengths as well as recognise and compensate for your weaknesses.

Motivational fit

Once you know your focus, you can choose role models, frame goals, seek or give feedback, and provide incentives that will strengthen your motivation or your team’s.

Choosing role models

Storytelling has long been touted as a motivational tool. But different types of people need varying kinds of stories. Studies show that the promotion-focused are more engaged when they hear about an inspirational role model. The prevention-focused, in contrast, are impressed by a strong cautionary tale about someone whose path they shouldn’t follow, because thinking about avoiding mistakes feels right to them.

Framing the goal

Sometimes even minor tweaks in how you think about a goal or the language you use to describe it can make a difference. One of our favorite studies on this subject comes from Germany. Coaches in a highly regarded semi-professional soccer league were told to prep their players for high-pressure penalty kicks with one of two statements: “You are going to shoot five penalties.

Your aspiration is to score at least three times.” Or “You are going to shoot five penalties. Your obligation is to not miss more than twice.” You probably wouldn’t expect a small change in wording to affect these practiced, highly motivated players.

But it had a big impact. Players did significantly better when the instructions were framed to match their dominant motivational focus, which the researchers had previously measured. This was especially true for prevention-minded players, who scored nearly twice as often when they received the don’t-miss instructions.

When you are trying to keep yourself or someone else motivated, remember that promotion-focused people need to think about what they are doing in terms of positives (what they aspire to, how best to accomplish the task) and prevention-focused people should instead think about negatives (potential mistakes, obstacles to avoid).

Seeking or giving feedback

Once goals are set, you must sustain the motivational fit by seeking out — or, as a manager, giving — the right kind of feedback. Promotion-focused people tend to increase their efforts when a supervisor offers them praise for excellent work, whereas prevention-focused people are more responsive to criticism and the looming possibility of failure.

For instance, in one study we found that the promotion-focused were more motivated and tried harder in the midst of a task when they were assured that they were on target to reach a goal as opposed to when they were told that they were below target but could catch up.

For prevention-focused people the reverse was true: They tried harder when told they weren’t on target; in fact, being assured of success undermined their motivation.

Providing incentives

Tangible incentives are another way to sustain motivational fit. You can create your own incentives (“If I finish this project by Friday, I will treat myself to a spa day,” or “If I don’t finish this project by Friday, I will spend the weekend cleaning out the garage”), and you can push to make sure your employees’ incentives create fit.

We believe that a promotion focus and a prevention focus are two legitimate ways of looking at the same goal. And both promotion-focused and prevention-focused people are crucial for every organisation’s success. 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.

Promotion-Prevention hybrids

Most people have a dominant focus, but some seem to wear both hats equally often.

To create motivational fit and enhance performance for these hybrids, you must remember that no one can wear both hats at the same time. Hybrids will adopt one focus or the other, often as a function of which motivation is best suited to the task at hand — so let that be your guide. Create fit for tasks involving safety or accuracy by using prevention feedback and incentives, but use the promotion variety for tasks involving creativity or advancement.

Heidi Grant Halvorson is a social psychologist and the author of “Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.”

E. Tory Higgins is a professor of psychology and management and the director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University.

They are the authors of “Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World to Power Success and Influence.”

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

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