Another Angle on Employee Motivation


It’s the end of regulation time in a soccer game and the score is tied. It’s time for the shoot out to determine the victor. You are the coach. How should you advise your five shooters, each of whom will get one shot at close range?

  • “I want you all to concentrate on our scoring at least three times”, OR
  • “I want you to concentrate on our not missing more than two times.”

You first reaction is probably like mine, the first option, of course! It’s a positive message, a positive objective, not fear based. “Not necessarily so,” say Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins in the March 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review. It depends, on what your players’ motivational focus is. Some may have what the authors call a promotion focus and others a prevention focus.

  • Promotion Focus:
    • Motivated by moving toward goals, advancement, rewards, etc.
    • More inclined to take some risks to succeed.
    • Optimistic by nature and open to new opportunities
  • Prevention Focus:
    • Concentrate on staying safe
    • Cautious in pursuit of goals
    • More thorough, conventional in approach, and prepared

As with all these psychological traits, you can encounter a mismatch when the manager and the employee are motivated differently. So, a boss who inspires with a story or challenge around achieving great outcomes will not necessarily connect with an employee who is drawn to a tale or strategy that honors caution and certainty in pursuit of the goal.

How do you know which focus an employee has? You listen to him/her. What questions do they ask you about the objectives? Are their queries about rewards, success, great accomplishment, and exceeding expectations? Or, are they about the risk, potential pitfalls or places where we can screw up, and consequences if we fail or fall short?

This schema is a lot like away from & towards motivation from the field of Neuro-linguistic Programming. Nevertheless, I offer it as yet another shorthand way to see if you are on the same wave length with your people.

Now, if you are that soccer coach, take each of your shooters aside, one-by-one, and deliver your message. But you better hurry. The ref is waiting and the fans are getting restless.