June 26, 2013 | Q&A

Finding the Fit That Makes Us Tick

In a new book, E. Tory Higgins shares the keys to understanding what motivates people — and how to unlock success and influence others.


How is this new book, Focus, different than your previous book, Beyond Pleasure and Pain, which also addressed how we think about motivation?

I wrote Beyond Pleasure and Pain to help people move beyond understanding motivation as a simple question of carrots or sticks. Heidi Grant Halvorson and I wrote Focus to show people how they can use motivational fit in life, to be more successful and motivated with respect to their goals, and more effective in their relations with other people, whether it’s their children or their students or their employees. Focus is much more a practical guide.

How can we identify our own and others’ motivational focus?

If you’re working with someone for quite a while, do they seem not to be satisfied with the status quo? Are they always looking for something better, to make progress? That kind of person is probably more promotion focused. They think in terms of gains. Emotionally, they tend toward being really happy and jubilant and eager or they’re looking sad and discouraged and disappointed.

If you’re working with someone who is more concerned with maintaining the status quo, who doesn’t like taking many chances, who has more of an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” outlook, that person is probably more prevention-focused. They think in terms of preservation and preventing losses to what they already have. Emotionally, they are relatively relaxed and calm, or, if things aren’t going well, nervous and tense.

It’s important to say that we are not arguing that there are only two kinds of people in the world. We’re saying there are two kinds of motivation in the world, promotion and prevention. There are situations where everyone would be in promotion and there are situations where everybody would be in prevention. Someone can be prevention-focused as a parent or spouse, but much more promotion-focused on the job.

Can you give us an example of how these different kinds of focuses can play out on the job?

Consider a negotiation. In a negotiation there are two kinds of reference points. There’s the aspirational goal — the ideal result of the negotiation. Then there’s the walk-away price — the absolute minimum you want out of the negotiation. In between is the target, which would be a successful outcome. When we teach negotiations we train people to emphasize both.

People with a strong promotional-focus emphasize the aspiration price because that represents a motivational fit with their system. What’s the downside? The problem with promotion people is that if during the negotiation it looks like they’re not going to get their maximal, they may actually quit the negotiation and not make the agreement, even though the offer on the table is as good as the target. The flip side is that prevention-focused people tend to focus just on the walk-away. They can end up getting less than they could have gotten if they’d kept their eye on the maximal as well.

It’s important to know whether you tend to be more promotion- or prevention-oriented and enter a negotiation knowing your aspiration price, your ideal (or target), and what you believe is your reservation (or walk-away) price. It’s easy in the heat of the moment to emphasize the one that fits your system. When the negotiation gets to a certain point, to a point where either an agreement or an impasse is about to happen, take a break. Go to the bathroom. Say you need to make a phone call. Then think about where you are in relation again to these different reference points.

You also need to do what you can to know the motivational focus of the other person. If you are promotion-focused, there’s a risk when negotiating with someone who has a prevention focus. You may push so hard that you are actually going beyond that person’s reservation price. When you do that, that person will end the negotiation.

How can managers make the most of the two motivational focuses when they are working with employees?

The aim of giving feedback as a manager is to strengthen someone’s motivation so they can perform better in the future. Most people think of B. F. Skinner and positive reinforcement: the idea that you should reward behavior that you want repeated. But that research was on animals, not humans. And, aside from Skinner, people tend to believe that it’s better to give positive feedback than negative feedback. But what you really need to do is give feedback that fits the person.

For someone who is promotion-focused, they need feedback that motivates them to seek out future gains. So if they’ve done well, you can really just say, “Wow. That was great progress. Keep it up, I’m optimistic you can keep those gains coming.” But you don’t want to use the language of failure if you have to give them negative feedback because they will lose their eagerness and feel discouraged. You need to frame the failure around gains: “What you did here was X. If instead you did Y, you would do much better, you would make progress, and you will advance.”

For prevention-focused people, it’s tricky to talk about success. You don’t want to say, “Wow, that was great. You’re on fire and nothing’s going to stop you.” You’re killing the vigilance they need to stay motivated. Instead, use maintenance language. Say, “That was really good work. Just keep that up, keep maintaining that. That’s good.” To give negative feedback, you can basically call a failure a failure, within reason: “When you did X, you made a mistake. You need to be vigilant against those kind of mistakes in order to maintain good performance.”

There’s also leadership style to consider. The management literature is very enamored of transformational leadership. It has good street cred. Transformational leaders are optimistic, eager, and enthusiastic. It’s a terrific fit for promotion employees and in America in general. That’s why it looks good. If you did the same thing in Japan, it would not do as well because they have more prevention employees. Wherever you are, you can do better by tailoring your style so that you are a transformational leader to your promotion employees but not to your prevention employees.

If promotion-focused people tend toward optimism and prevention-focused people tend toward pessimism, does that mean promotion-focused people are happier?

I can see why people might think that living a life full of joy and eagerness seems more pleasant. But all of us have failures in life. When you fail in prevention, it increases your vigilance. That system doesn’t mind having more vigilance. It fits, and you’re still highly motivated and it feels good to be highly motivated.

But when you fail in promotion, you become discouraged. You lose your eagerness and it shuts down the system. It’s a non-fit. You are now living a life of unmotivated discouragement. At its worst, it leads to depression. Any clinician will tell you that the consequences of being very depressed are worse than the consequences of being very anxious, especially the risk of suicide.

One other thing: this question is related to asking yourself what kind of life you would like to live. Even in success, there is a difference between promotion and prevention. Quite literally, promotion people are idealists, which means they do have rose-colored glasses. Prevention people are realists. You could easily argue living a life that’s realistic is better than living a life with rose-colored glasses that’s an illusion. That’s the deeper philosophical point of view. Do we really want to argue that promotion is better?

What advice do you have for people who lean strongly to one side or another of these two focuses?

There are many circumstances that call for a strong prevention or promotional focus. Trying to create an innovative product would benefit from a strong promotion focus. Trying to create a reliable product would benefit from a strong prevention focus. But if you find that your extreme focus is beginning to hurt you more than help you, there are some things you can do.

Find a complementary partner with the opposite focus — on your management team at work, in your spouse at home. Your partner will naturally set constraints on you that will reduce the costs of your focus. You can also intentionally put yourself into your complementary state. If you are prevention focused and you’re assessing some decision in your usual hyper-vigilant way to the point of overkill, you need to stop and ask yourself what you would gain from each of the alternatives. That will put you in a promotion focus, and it will constrain your extreme prevention focus. And in a promotion focus you just want to get on it with. If you’re extremely promotion focused, you should ask yourself, what would I lose with each of these options? What kind of things do I need to be careful about?

By the way, like everything else in life, it will take practice to be able to do this well.

There’s also an unintended positive consequence to pushing yourself beyond your dominant state. You’ll see things you didn’t see before, because promotion and prevention is selective with respect to what you pay attention to. You’ll actually see information and options you hadn’t even considered before.

E. Tory Higgins is Professor of Management and director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Heidi Grant Halvorson, E. Tory Higgins

"Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence"

View abstract/citation 

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