Motivational Focus (April 2015)

What is your motivational focus? What is the motivational focus of the people around you?

Take, for example, an executive manager who is responsible for developing a growth strategy for her division. She is inspired by the possibilities and opportunities which could result from implementing the strategy. Refining the strategy through creative brainstorming with others fuels her energy and enthusiasm. She has what is known as “promotion-focused motivation”.

Promotion-focused people

  • Want to fill their life with advancement and growth and gains
  • Are more likely to take chances, seize opportunities, seek many alternatives
  • Are interested in satisfying their needs for nurturance: receiving positive things
  • Are more likely to excel at creativity and innovation
  • Display high energy when they succeed
  • Respond to optimism and praise
  • Make decisions by considering what could go right. They will do what it takes to make things go right even if some things go wrong along the way
  • Think more about the pros than the cons
  • Are discouraged by setbacks because these indicate that they are not gaining, not winning. Lack of success leads to low energy. Failures indicate an absence of a positive

How might our executive manager gain the support of the key stakeholders who are involved in contributing to and approving the strategy? She could use her promotion-focus to describe the benefits, possibilities, and growth opportunities for the organisation. However, there will be a number of prevention-focused people who bring with them the ability to protect the company’s gains by avoiding risk.

Prevention-focused people

  • Practice vigilance and caution which requires thinking about all that has to be done in order for something to not go wrong
  • Prefer stability (non-loss) over change (potential loss)
  • Focus on stopping losses and obstacles that derail goals and growth
  • Are conservative, thorough, accurate, reliable, steadfast and plan carefully
  • Display a quiet energy when they succeed and achieve their goals. Then they feel peaceful and calm.
  • Wish to avoid loss and want to feel secure, to stay safe. This is where they achieve well-being and satisfaction in life
  • Do not risk taking chances which might be a threat to their security and safety
  • See goals as opportunities to meet their responsibilities
  • Are driven by criticism and the possibility of failure to work even harder to succeed
  • Stick to realistic plans
  • Do not want to risk making mistakes
  • Think more about the cons than the pros
  • Are not averse to growth, it’s how they attain it

Prevention or Promotion – which is better?

Neither focus is better.

Heidi Grant Halvorson and Tory Higgins are authors of Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. Their work draws from 20 years of research by the Motivation Science Center at University of Columbia. People can be predominantly prevention-focused or promotion-focused but people can also use either focus depending on the context. For example, a promotion-focused person would be in prevention-focused mode when getting a flu shot to prevent future ill-health.

Every organisation needs the strength of both kinds of focus.

In our executive’s case she could craft her communication to adapt to both kinds of focus. Promotion-focused people think “Why will implementing this strategy be a good idea and what will we miss out if we don’t implement it?” They are seeking opportunity and gain. Prevention-focused people think “Why would implementing this strategy reduce organisational risk and what kind of trouble could we avoid if we don’t implement it?” Both groups might reach the same conclusion to implement the strategy, but will have achieved this with a different focus.

Motivational Fit

Our executive should pay attention to two things:

  1. What each person wants e.g. achieve growth; maintain steady state; reduce risk; avoid losses
  2. The motivational focus each uses in making decisions; the kinds of information they need; their strategy for achieving the goal

“Motivational fit happens when you create a match not only between what people want and what they get, but also between what they want and how they go about getting it – the way they reach their goals.” (p152)

Respect and gratitude

“We need to respect the perspectives and contributions of both our promotion colleagues and our prevention colleagues, and to be grateful that the strength of those with one focus can complement so effectively the strengths of those with the other focus” (p47).


Halvorson, H., & Higgins, T. (2013). Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. Hudson Street Press.

Sansom, L. (2014). Prevention or Promotion? (Book Review). Positive Psychology News Daily

Horne, A. (2015). Motivational Focus. Positive Psychology News Daily

What’s My Motivation? A Q&A with E. Tory Higgins (12 August 2013). Article in Strategy + Business

MentorCoach Interview with Heidi Grant Halvorson, June 21, 2013