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Motivational Focus

written by Amanda Horne 3 February 2015
Quiet energy

Amanda Horne is an executive coach and facilitator whose business theme is "Thriving People and Workplaces." She is an Authentic Happiness Coaching graduate and a founding member of Positive Workplace International. Full bio.

Amanda's articles are here.

Do you use the new year to set goals and create new habits? How effective are those goals? Are they enticing and stimulating? Are you motivated to get started and commit to the end?

When I hear people say “I’m going to get fit,” or “I’m going to spend more time with my team,” my response is usually “Why?” Their hesitation and the puzzled look on their face tells me, “What kind of question is that? It’s obvious, isn’t it, does there need to be a why?” I ask variations of the ‘why’ question because I’m interested to know what lies behind the goal, what motivates that person, and where they can find energy to stay committed to achieving the goal.

Digging deeply into the ‘why’ begins the process of defining self-concordant goals. According to Kennon Sheldon, self-concordant goals “fit with and well represent the deeper interests, values, and personality of the individual. By contrast, non-concordant goals are ones people don’t enjoy or believe in, or that they pursue because of external or internal pressures. People better attain self-concordant goals over time because they strive harder and longer.” With self-concordant goals we are motivated to get going and keep going.

Motivation, Prevention and Promotion

It was with this interest in what motivates people that I tuned into a MentorCoach interview with Heidi Grant Halvorson in June 2013. Halvorson discussed motivational focus, prevention-focus and promotion-focus. This is documented in the very accessible and readable book which she co-wrote with Tory Higgins 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.

In the past I had learned about that approach goals that are directed towards approaching a desirable outcome are linked to greater well-being than avoidance goals directed towards avoiding an undesirable outcome. I was expecting to hear similar views from Halvorson, that a prevention-focus might in some way be less effective and admirable than a promotion-focus. I was wrong. People are motivated differently. People can be predominantly prevention-focused or promotion-focused, or they use either focus depending on the situation. Neither is good or bad. Both kinds of focus can lead to success as long as our focus is strong. The compelling sense I took away from Halvorson’s interview was the deep, non-judgemental respect we can have for other people by understanding their focuses and how those focuses work for them.

So I bought the book. It sat on my shelf unopened for months until May this year when I read Lisa Sansom’s book review here on PPND. It inspired me to read the book. It is a practical book, full of examples and guidance for applying motivational focus in all parts of our lives: parenting, working, personal interests, relationships, influencing, negotiating, leadership and management, decision making, changing.

Like Lisa “I wish I had the room in this article to share all of the many insights I gained from this book.” Like Lisa I found the book “helped me to understand other important people in my life, including my family, my friends, my co-workers, and my clients.” Here in this article I want to add to Lisa’s review by including information about the characteristics of prevention and promotion focus.

Prevention, promotion: both are effective

When we are high in either focus and can use it effectively to handle problems, we take action and report fewer emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety. The kind of focus we have is not a trait. It’s a tool. At times we might need to have more of one focus than another, despite our dominant focus. To appeal to people, knowing their preferred focus helps us to help them stay motivated. We can communicate in a way that has motivational fit.

Promotion-focused people:

  • Display high energy when they succeed
  • Respond to optimism and praise
  • Are more likely to take chances, seize opportunities, seek many alternatives
  • Are more likely to excel at creativity and innovation
  • Are interested in satisfying their needs for nurturance: receiving positive things
  • Want to fill their life with advancement and growth and gains
  • 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.

Prevention-focused people:

  • 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
  • See goals as opportunities to meet their responsibilities
  • Are driven by criticism and the possibility of failure to work even harder to succeed
  • Are conservative, thorough, accurate, reliable, steadfast and plan carefully
  • Practice vigilance and caution which requires thinking about all that has to be done in order for something to not go wrong
  • Stick to realistic plans
  • Do not want to risk making mistakes
  • Do not risk taking chances which might be a threat to their security and safety
  • Think more about the cons than the pros
  • Are alert and energized to work hard when things aren’t going well. They see potential failure as a presence of negatives, and they are motivated to work hard to avoid negatives in their lives. This is in the pursuit of the gain of security and safety.

Matching Focus to Context

While we may have a dominant focus, we can change the focus to meet the situation. For example, a prevention-focused person would be promotion-focused when buying a lottery ticket to seek gain. A promotion-focused person would be prevention-focused when getting a flu shot to prevent future ill-health.

Both kinds of focus can sometimes work together. For example, with the goal to exercise more, promotion-focus gives people enthusiasm for the gain of better fitness, and prevention-focus keeps them vigilant in the long term to avoid losing the fitness they built up.

One of the chapters I particularly enjoyed was on optimism and defensive pessimism. Lisa covers this nicely in her article. We really ought to think twice before we label people as either negative or positive, pessimistic or optimistic. Looking through the lens of motivation-focus we can see that both kinds of focus achieve success.

Deciding differently

Another enjoyable chapter was on decision making. Promotion-focused people think “Why will doing X be a good idea and what will I miss out if I don’t do it?” They are seeking opportunity and gain. Prevention-focused people think “Why would X be a bad idea and what kind of trouble could I avoid if I don’t do it?” They want to minimize loss; if the loss is not alarming they will do X. Both groups of people might reach the same conclusion and do X, but will have achieved this with a different focus. Part 2 of the book shifts our attention to how we can use the knowledge of motivational focus to help influence decisions and behaviors.

Grateful for Both

There is much more in the book than can be covered here. I hope this has stimulated your interest in motivational focus. I leave you with wise advice from Halvorson and Higgins: “One of the most important take-home messages from this book is that there are two completely legitimate ways of looking at the same goal. We need to respect the perspectives and contributions of both our promotion colleagues and our prevention colleagues, and to be grateful that the strengths of those with one focus can complement so effectively the strengths of those with the other focus,” (p. 47).




MentorCoach Interview with Heidi Grant Halvorson June 21, 2013

Halvorson, H. (2010). Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. New York. Penguin Group.

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.

Sheldon, K. (2008). Positive Motivation (The Positive Psychology Workbook Series). The Positive Psychology Workbook Series. The quotation is from

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

Halvorson, H., Sometimes Negative Feedback is Best (January 28, 2013). Article in Harvard Business Review

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
High energy courtesy of craigCloutier
Quiet energy courtesy of Let Ideas Compete
Crossing footpaths by the sessile oak courtesy of Evelyn Simak [Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

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1 comment

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 5 February 2015 - 5:46 pm

Thank you for the kind shout-out and it’s very timely since I’m about to teach this material to a change management class next week! A good synposis that I’ll direct my students to! This was a book I found hard to review because I just wanted to reprint it all and say “here – read this!”. I do like your approach! Thanks for sharing!!


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