The Secret to Effective Motivation
An interview with Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins, authors of Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World to Power Success and Influence. For more, see the article Do You Play to Win--or to Not Lose?
SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I'm Sarah Green. I'm talking today with E. Tory Higgins and Heidi Grant Halvorson. They're co-authors of the book Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. And they're co-authors of the HBR article "Do You Play to Win or Not to Lose?"
They're both based at Columbia, where Heidi is the associate director of the Motivation Science Center. And Tory is director of the Center and a professor who has won multiple accolades and teaching awards. Thanks to both of you for joining us today.
HEIDI GRANT HALVORSON: Thanks.
E. TORY HIGGINS: Thank you for having us.
SARAH GREEN: So at the core of the book is the concept of motivational focus, specifically what you call prevention focus and promotion focus. Tory, can you explain those terms to us?
E. TORY HIGGINS: Basically, the idea-- this goes back to the fact that all of us understand that motivation is about approaching pleasure and avoiding pain to some extent. And the real question though is whether that's the whole story. And promotion prevention says, yes, that is what we do. We approach pleasure and avoid pain. But there's actually two very different ways that we do that.
And so we can approach pleasure and avoid pain in a promotion way or in a prevention way. When we do it in a promotion way, then it's the pleasure of making progress, the pleasure of advancing, accomplishing things, gaining things. And so that's where the pleasure comes from. And the pain is when we fail to advance, when we fail to make gains, where we basically stay where we are instead of making progress.
So that's the promotion kind of pleasure and pain. Prevention is really quite different because prevention is really concerned about safety and security. It wants to maintain a satisfactory state, maintain the status quo as long as that's OK. And so in the prevention system, pleasure is actually maintaining safety and security, maintaining where you are because it's OK.
And pain is when you fail to do that, when you actually make mistakes, when you lose that satisfactory state. And so they're both pleasure and pain, but they work very, very differently.
One of my students was a vice president of Boeing. And he told me the story about the fact that their safety record just wasn't good enough. Their products were not safe and not reliable. And they felt what they needed to do was motivate managers to make that better to have a different record of safety. And they naturally decided the way to do that was by offering a bonus and saying that if the safety record improved, by the end of year, everybody would get a bonus.
And to his surprise, it didn't work. And he assumed, well, how could it not work? It's kind of like one size fits all, carrots and sticks. And it turned out that the problem is that when you offer a bonus, that's really a promotion kind of motivation because you're saying if you do this and this, you're going to gain something. You're actually going to advance your salary. So that puts everybody into a promotion mindset.
Whereas what they really wanted to do was improve safety. And to improve safety, you need people to be in a prevention mindset. And so you can't really give a bonus. And you have to do something really quite different.
And what you need to do is not obvious, which is instead of giving a bonus, what you do instead is say, all right, we have put aside this money for you. You already have it. And you will have it still at the end of the year if you in fact have a certain kind of safety record. So it's yours to lose. And so you now have it. And you need to maintain a vigilant safety record, or otherwise, you'll lose it.
And when you give that kind of message, it puts people in prevention. Now they do care about safety. And now, in fact, you'll be effective.
SARAH GREEN: Definitely, that's a create segue because I'd love to talk more about how these different types play out at work. And of course, I want to be realistic and say that, I've read the book. And I know from reading it that most of us are actually a mix of different kinds of types and different kinds of situations. So I don't want to get into type casting.
But with that caveat out there, Heidi, can you tell us a little bit about maybe what kinds of jobs and tasks tend to be better for each type so we might see how we might fit in into the workplace a little better?
HEIDI GRANT HALVORSON: Sure. Well I think, as you said, everybody does some of both. And everybody, to some extent, cares about advancing. And everyone, to some extent, cares about safety. But we do tend to find that many people-- probably most people-- have what we think of as a dominant focus. Again, they'll change.
So my dominant focus when it comes to my work is definitely promotion focus. I tend to think about my goals and my projects and what I do in terms of how I can kind of advance and move forward and make progress. For the record, I think about other aspects of my life like how I am as a parent very differently, much more prevention focused. How to keep everybody safe and make sure that all the bills get paid?
So each of us does shift. But we do tend to have a dominant focus with respect to our work and our careers. When you find that your dominant focus is promotion, then the strengths of promotion-- being in a promotion focused mindset-- are things like creativity, innovation, being able to identify opportunities and to seize them, to be more comfortable taking chances, more comfortable thinking outside the box, doing things in new ways that haven't been done before, being a great brainstormer.
These are the kinds of things that we find that when people are promotion focused, they tend to just naturally do more effectively. And so people who are promotion focused do tend to be-- and there's actually data that shows they tend to end up in positions that are sort of more artistic or exploratory by nature, so to be creatives, people who work in design or to be people who are working as consultants or inventors.
Prevention focused people have a very different set of strengths. And when we are prevention focused, we tend to be better at things like being very diligent and thorough, being very accurate because prevention focus is all about avoiding errors. So we're great planners when we're prevention focused. We see all these things that might go wrong and we try to figure out how we can prevent those things from happening. And also being more of a sort of a analytical thinker is something that kind of goes along with prevention motivation.
So we do find that people who are high in prevention motivation end up being more in sort of the more realistic and kinds of jobs that [? require ?] a lot of technical detail, so things like being an engineer or lawyers actually, particularly contract lawyers. Their entire job is pretty much about making sure bad things don't happen, making sure there are no loopholes, making sure there is no language that's going to come back to bite you later in the document.
So those kinds of jobs where we're being very accurate and being good scrutiny and being good at discovering things that might go wrong and being good at keeping things running smoothly-- those are the kinds of careers where someone who's very prevention focused is going to flourish.
SARAH GREEN: Well, that points, I think, to some of the interesting potential conflicts that might arise in the workplace. If you are a manager, for instance, who might be promotion focused and you're trying to motivate who's prevention focused, and if you don't understand that they're just coming at it from a different way, you might be trying to give them encouragement that-- going back to the Boeing example-- that's not motivating to them.
Heidi, can you just talk a little bit about maybe some of the conflicts that can arise and things managers should be mindful of in that regard?
HEIDI GRANT HALVORSON: In another part of the book, we talk about speaking the motivational language of the people you work with or even-- this works for your spouse too. Because there are a lot of people who talk about, oh, my husband is promotion and I'm prevention. There's a lot of conflict that comes up around this issue. We're seeing, I'm thinking in terms of gain. You're thinking in terms of avoiding loss.
But actually, once you can kind of identify that-- and it's pretty easy to do-- then you can start to actually-- if you want to be persuasive, if you're promotion focused, and you want to be persuasive to your prevention focused colleague and convince them that you need to innovate in this particular area, then the thing to do is not to do what would work for you, which is to say all the reasons why innovation is so great.
But what would work would be instead to say, here's why it's dangerous for us to not innovate. We could lose market share. We could end up behind all of our other competitors. That's the way to talk about it that is going to make a prevention focused person say, oh, well, now that makes sense. Because danger, I get. Right? Falling behind, that's bad.
So one of the things that I think is really important in the book that we go over is sort of how to very-- and the differences are very subtle. But how to sort of subtly change your language to make sense to the person you're talking to you if they happen to be coming from a different dominant motivation. And so we can learn to talk to each other in the language that makes sense. And so we can kind of all get on board with the same idea and do it in a way that, again, respects what each person is bringing. Because really, ultimately, both promotion and prevention are always needed in any success story.
SARAH GREEN: It's interesting. As you're talking through this, I'm remembering some of the really interesting studies from the book that actually showed that if you match people's motivational fit to the kind of feedback that you're giving them, it actually does have an impact. And I'm just wondering, Tory, if maybe we could end by you just telling us about some of the really interesting research in this area and kind of the science behind it.
E. TORY HIGGINS: So one of the examples-- it's one of my favorites; I know it's one of Heidi's favorites, too-- is that there was this-- there is, in fact, this team in Germany, a football team--
HEIDI GRANT HALVORSON: I love this one.
E. TORY HIGGINS: --what we'd call soccer. And as you know, football in Germany is-- they're fanatical about it. And these scientists managed to work with one of the teams and managed to convince them to do a little experiment during one of their practices. And the practices had to do with shoot outs, which is practicing penalty kicks, which I'm sure everybody realizes in football-- it's very important because the game so often ends up tied.
So that's the practice. And they actually gave out our measure from the Motivation Science Center so we could identify who among the players were more promotion, who was more prevention. And the experimental part of it was to have the shooting coach randomly give people instructions about what to do in the shoot out.
And for half of the players, he said, I want you to get three or more into the net. And in the other condition, he said to the players, I want you not to miss two or more. And so basically, everybody's been told is the same thing, which is try to end up scoring at least three points. But in one case, they're using the language of sort of eager gaining points, in the case, of not missing, losing points.
And the same kind of result happened, which is that when you were promotion, you scored more points if you were given this eager gain language. If you were prevention, you scored more points if you were given the don't miss, don't lose language. And it was almost as much overall as a full point. And anybody who watches this game knows that that's precisely what wins you the World Cup.
So it's a dramatic kind of effect on real players in real time who you would normally think you could not possibly change how well they would score. There's nobody more motivated than professional football players in Germany. And there's nobody more skilled. So how could a little change in language make such a big difference? But this is what's been found over and over again.
SARAH GREEN: Maybe just quickly, before we wrap up, because we're almost out of time-- but I'm just curious, Heidi, is one of these groups happier than the other group? Because it's hard to get away from the sense that the people on the sunny side of life are always supposed to be happier. Is that true?
HEIDI GRANT HALVORSON: I would say that it really just depends on what you mean by happy. I think we tend to think of happy as really cheerful and upbeat. And when you think about happiness that way, then yes, I think that it's true that promotion focused people-- or when people are promotion focused, when they feel good, that's the kind of good they feel. It's a sort of upbeat joy, cheerfulness kind of happy.
But there's a kind of good feeling that prevention focused people have too. And that's the kind of calmness, relaxation, sort of more like serenity that prevention focused people experience when everything is going well, when they're safe and everything is running smoothly. So both are positive emotions. Both are, I think, very important to our well being.
And I think the truth is, if you ask most people-- I'm about 40. I have young kids. If you ask me, what would I rather feel on any given day, relaxed and calm and peaceful or psyched and joyous? I will take relaxed and calm and peaceful any day of the week. People meditate to get to be calm and peaceful. They don't meditate to feel psyched and cheerful.
So I think that that prevention kind of good is a really important kind of good that we really need for our well being. And Tory and I have actually done studies together showing that both promotion focused and prevention focus people-- when they do well, when they're actually reaching their goals, it predicts well being for both of them.
E. TORY HIGGINS: And also, I-- just one quick comment. I mean, there's so many religious in the world who have a concept of heaven. And in whatever language they're talking about, heaven is peace and joy. It's always both. So both people, promotion and prevention, can live heaven on earth, basically.
HEIDI GRANT HALVORSON: With peace and joy. But personally, I'll take peace if that's available.
SARAH GREEN: Well, that was fascinating. Heidi and Tory, thank you so much for joining us today.
HEIDI GRANT HALVORSON: Thank you so much, Sarah.
E. TORY HIGGINS: Yeah. Thank you, Sarah.
SARAH GREEN: That was Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins. The book is called Focus. For more, including their HBR article, visit hbr.org.