Most people have a dominant focus, but some seem to wear both hats equally often.

To create motivational fit and enhance performance within a team, you must remember that no one can wear both hats at the same time.  Hybrids will adopt one focus or the other, often as a function of which motivation is best suited to the task at hand—so let that be your guide.  Create fit for tasks involving safety or accuracy by using prevention feedback and incentives, but use the promotion variety for tasks involving creativity or advancement.

This isn’t a suggestion to seek out false praise or unwarranted criticism or offer up either one as a manager.  But, if you’re promotion-minded, you can look for people who will give you the positive, inspirational message you need.  If you’re prevention-minded, you should routinely ask colleagues for constructive criticism.

Don’t be overly effusive with the prevention-focused or overly critical with the promotion-focused.

As a manager, you should always give honest feedback, but you might want to adjust your emphasis to maximize motivation.  Don’t be overly effusive when praising the prevention-focused and don’t gloss over mistakes they’ve made or areas that need improvement.  Meanwhile, don’t be overly critical when delivering bad news to the promotion-focused—they need reassurance that you have confidence in their ability and recognize their good work.

Tangible incentives are another way to sustain motivational fit. This is not as simple as “rewards are motivating,” because incentives vary according to personality type. You can create your own incentives (“If I finish this project by Friday, I will treat myself to a spa day,” or “If I don’t finish this project by Friday, I will spend the weekend cleaning out the garage”) and you can push to make sure your employees’ incentives create fit.

It’s also important to avoid incentives that aren’t aligned with focus, because they can be demotivating.  For example, after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the public relations disaster it created for BP, the company’s new CEO, Bob Dudley, changed the rules governing employee bonuses: increasing safety would be the sole criterion on which they were calculated.  One well-known shortcoming of this approach is that it can lead to the underreporting of problems rather than to an actual increase in safety.  But a second important flaw is probably now also obvious: rewarding people for safety is a poor motivational fit.  The thought of a bonus makes people eager and willing to take chances (promotion), which is the opposite of being vigilant and avoiding mistakes (prevention).  On the other hand, penalties—such as taking bonus money away—for not meeting new safety standards would provide the right kind of motivational fit.


Promotion focus and prevention focus are two legitimate ways of looking at the same goal.  You may think your business should concentrate on creating new opportunities for advancement, while your colleague thinks the emphasis should be on protecting your relationships with existing clients—and you are both right.  Promotion-focused and prevention-focused people are crucial for every organization’s success, despite the potential for infighting and poor communication.  Businesses (and teams) need to excel at innovation and at maintaining what works, at speed and at accuracy.  The key is to understand and embrace our personality types and those of our colleagues and to bring out the best in each of us.


With acknowledgement to the work of Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. and Jonathan Halvorson, Ph.D