Do You Know Your Motivational Style?None By Homaira Kabir
You have a presentation coming up. Are you excited about it, brainstorming new and creative ideas, and working through it quickly and enthusiastically? Or have you been stressed from day one, working slowly and deliberately and making sure nothing goes wrong?
Welcome to motivational focus. Research out of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University shows that all of us fall into one of two ways of approaching life’s challenges to varying degrees. We’re either promotion-focused, inspired by what we stand to gain, or prevention-focused, motivated by the fear of losing what we already have. And although multiple factors may affect our motivational focus at any given time, such as the alignment of our values and strengths with our tasks, it’s based largely on personality and thus quite stable.
Why It’s Important
Dr. Heidi Halvorson, co-author of Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence, has found that knowing our motivational focus helps in many ways. Firstly, it allows us to choose professions with a good “motivational fit”. Promotion-focused people do well in creative careers such as music and consultancy, while prevention-focused people perform best in conventional work such as administration and accounting. Knowing our motivational focus affects both engagement and performance.
It also allows us to frame goals in a way that motivates us. Thinking about what they’ll “win” is an excellent motivator for promotion-focused people who love to take chances even if they don’t always think through the consequences. Paying attention to what they can “lose” is great motivation for the prevention-focused who’d rather maintain the status quo as long as their work is thorough and accurate. By wording our intentions differently, we can align our minds with our goals.
Which One Are You?
One reason we’re different in how we approach our tasks is because we may be relying more heavily on one of the two hemispheres of the brain. Dr. Richard Davidson’s work at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin has shown that emotions in the prefrontal cortex can be categorized as approach emotions and withdrawal emotions. Approach emotions, such as interest, curiosity, and joy show greater activation in the left frontal lobes, while the withdrawal emotions, like disgust, fear, and sadness, are more localized in the right frontal lobes.
If you’re unsure of your motivational focus, pay a little attention to your speech, and especially to your self-talk. Do you tend to use positive words towards life in general? Would you frame your goals as “I really want …” and “I’m so excited to …”? Or do you tend to use more negative language such as “I don’t like…” and talk about your goals in terms of what you fear losing?
Is It Time to Change?
Before you jump to the conclusion that you’d rather have more of the approach emotions and work at a promotion-focus, its important to bear in mind that all emotions serve an important evolutionary purpose. In our current preoccupation with happiness, we can forget that fear and sadness help us take stock of our lives and reconnect us with what matters to us. The right prefrontal cortex, where withdrawal emotions lie, is also more involved in social conduct and in good judgment, while the left looks after the planning and reasoning of our activities.
What can make us stuck in self-defeating patterns of thought and behavior, or searching for something more out of life, is an over-dependence on one style of functioning. A purely promotion-focus may push us towards a “crisis of meaning” at some point in our lives, especially if our goals are disconnected with a larger purpose. An overly prevention-focus may burden us under the weight of other people’s judgments and disconnect us from the joys of free and full living.
What You Can Do
Since motivational focus is largely dependent on personality, it’s not something that can be changed easily or quickly. However, Dr. Brian Little, a professor of personality and motivational psychology, talks about the power of “free traits” in influencing the course of our lives and enhancing human flourishing. These are the forgotten strengths that we can use to our advantage. However, there’s one caveat— since they are the unused muscles of our personality, they can tire us out and initially feel inauthentic.
But here’s the solution. We can build what Dr. Little calls “restorative niches” in our day, to recover from the energy spent in doing what doesn’t come naturally to us. As for authenticity, we can use our body to bring more of ourselves into what we do. Trying to step out of a self-centered promotion-focus towards more meaning? Lean forward when interacting with others and show your interest in their lives by engaging your facial muscles. Trying to break free from the inner dialogue of external evaluations? Expand your chest and hold your head up high as you step into your next meeting.
Knowing your motivational focus is surely important for optimal performance. But it’s equally important because it helps us change what’s not working and bring our best selves