How to Recognize Motivational Strengths (Yours, and Everyone Else’s)

Do you spend your life pursuing accomplishments and accolades, reaching for the stars? Or are you busy fulfilling your duties and responsibilities, being the person everyone can count on?

Why do colleagues
working toward a common goal so often fail to see eye-to-eye when it comes to
achieving it? At times, you feel
like you aren’t on the same page, or even the same planet, as your coworkers, even when everyone involved is clearly
capable and has a proven track-record of success. Why the disconnect?


The answer is a
remarkably simple one: There is
more than one way to look at the same goal. Take for example a goal that many of us share: I
want to do my job exceptionally well
. For some of us, doing our jobs well is about achievement
and accomplishment–we have what psychologists call a promotion focus. In
the language of economics, promotion focus is about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities.

For others,
doing our jobs well is about security, about not losing the positions you’ve
worked so hard for. This prevention focus places the emphasis on
avoiding danger, fulfilling responsibilities, and doing what feel you ought to do. In economic terms, it’s about minimizing losses, trying to hang on to what you’ve

Promotion and
prevention-focused people work differently
to reach the same goal. They use
different strategies, have different strengths, and are prone to different
kinds of mistakes. One group will
be motivated by applause, the other by criticism. One group may give up too soon–the other may not know when
to quit.

So, do you spend
your life pursuing accomplishments and accolades, reaching for the stars? Or
are you busy fulfilling your duties and responsibilities–being the person
everyone can count on? Start by identifying your
focus, and then use the information below to better understand and embrace your
strengths, your potential weaknesses, and the strategies that will work best
for you.

What Motivates You–Criticism or Praise?

When you are
promotion-focused, your motivation feels like eagerness – an enthusiastic desire to really go for it. Eagerness is enhanced by positive
feedback –the more you are succeeding, the more motivated you become. Confidence
heightens your energy and intensity. Doubting yourself takes the wind right out
of your sails.


When you are
prevention-focused, your motivation feels like vigilance–you are on the lookout for danger. Vigilance actually increases in response to negative
feedback or self-doubt. There’s
nothing like the looming possibility of failure to get your prevention juices
flowing. Over-confidence or
effusive praise, however, may lead you to let down your guard, and undermine
your motivation.

Do You Embrace Risk, or Avoid It?

ventured, nothing gained” pretty much captures the promotion-focused philosophy.
The promotion-minded have a habit of saying “yes” to every opportunity, having what psychologists call a risky bias. Prevention-minded people, on the other hand, are cautious. They
tend to say “no” more, or having a more conservative

These biases
manifest themselves in all sorts of ways.
For example, people with prevention goals are reluctant to disengage
from one activity to try another, preferring the devil they know to the one
they don’t. But their conservative nature also makes them less likely than their risk-loving colleagues to procrastinate, for
fear that they won’t have time to get the job done.

Is Your Thinking Abstract or Concrete?

When people have
promotion goals, they feel free to be more exploratory and abstract in their
thinking. They brainstorm. They generate lots of options and possibilities
to reach their ideals, and are more creative. They are also particularly good at picking up on connecting
themes or synthesizing information.


In pursuit of
prevention goals, abstraction and creativity seems reckless and time-consuming.
Prevention-focused thinking is concrete and specific–you pick a plan and
stick to it. The prevention-minded are great with details, and have better memory
for what they’ve seen and what’s still needs to be done.

Speed or Accuracy?

Executing any
modestly complicated task involves what psychologists call a speed-accuracy
tradeoff. The faster you go, the
more mistakes you make. But going
slow has costs too–particularly if time is valuable and you are in a hurry to
get the job done. It won’t
surprise you to learn that promotion and prevention-minded people end up on
opposite sides of this particular trade off, with promotion favoring speed and
prevention preferring the slow-but-flawless route.

Are You Better at Getting There or Staying There?

thinking leads to energetic and enthusiastic motivation in the shorter term,
but can be less effective when it comes to long-term maintenance. Prevention-focused thinking, on the
other hand, is ideal for making sure your hard-earned gains don’t slip away.

Do You Get What You Want?


When it comes to
negotiating, having a promotion focus will give you the clear upper-hand.
Studies show that promotion-minded negotiators stay focused on their (ideal)
price or pay targets, while the prevention-minded worry too much about a
negotiation failure or impasse, leaving them more susceptible to less
advantageous agreements. When it
comes to getting what you want, it pays to focus on what you have to gain, rather
than what you might lose.

Armed with an
understanding of promotion and prevention, so much of what we do (and what our coworkers
do) makes a lot more sense. Perhaps
now you see why you’ve always been a risk-taker, or why you’ve always avoided
risks like the plague. It’s clear
why you are uncomfortable with being too optimistic, or why you are known for
your sunny outlook. You get
why some things have always been hard for you, while others came easily.

There’s no need
to fight it–embrace your promotion- or prevention-mindedness! After all, both kinds of motivation can
bring you success, and each brings something of value (e.g., innovation,
attention to detail) to your organization. Just remember to take with a grain
of salt the well-meaning advice and input from others when it doesn’t feel
right for you, focus on the strategies
that play to your own strengths, and see the value in what your
differently-motivated colleagues are bringing to the table.

Heidi’s new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals is available wherever books are sold. Follow Heidi on Twitter @hghalvorson.