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Do You Play to Win—or to Not Lose?

Do You Play to Win—or to Not Lose?
26 February 2013 John Moore

In what kinds of situations are you most effective? What factors strengthen or undermine your motivation?

People answer these questions in many different ways, and that is the challenge at the core of great management whether you just manage your own performance or someone else’s. A simple one-size-fits-all principle does not work. The strategies that help one person to excel may not be relevant or helpful to colleagues or your direct reports; similarly what works for your line manager or your mentor may not work for you.

One of the most common tools for identifying personality type in a business context is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. One of the difficulties with this and many other assessment tools is that they don’t actually predict performance. Such tools might tell you about attributes such as your degree of introversion or extroversion, or your reliance on thinking versus feeling, but they tell you very little about whether you are good at it, or how to improve if you are not.

There is, however, a way of grouping people into types on the basis of a personality attribute that can assist in predicting performance: promotion focus or prevention focus. Whilst these types are well known among academic psychologists and management researchers, few managers have come across them – until now!

What are the Two Types?

Motivational focus affects how we approach life’s challenges and demands. Promotion-focused people see their goals as creating a path to gain or advancement and concentrate on the rewards that will accrue when they achieve them. Typically, they are eager and they play to win. Promotion-focused people are often comfortable with taking chances; they like to work quickly; they like to dream BIG and to think creatively. On the downside, sometimes taking chances, working quickly and all of that positive thinking makes these individuals more prone to error, less likely to think things through, and usually unprepared with a plan B if things go wrong. That is the price that promotion-focused people are willing to pay, because for the promotion-focused, the worst thing is a chance not taken, a reward unearned, a failure to advance.

In contrast, the promotion-focused are engaged by inspirational role models, the prevention-focused by cautionary tales. Prevention-focused people perceive their goals as responsibilities: they concentrate on safety; they often worry about what might go wrong if they do not work hard enough or are not sufficiently careful.

On the up-side, they are usually vigilant, ‘play’ to not lose, prefer to ‘hang on’ to what they have and to maintain the status quo: they are often risk-averse. Their work is characterised by it being thorough, accurate, and carefully considered. Their motto for success is ‘slowly, but surely’ and their work is often meticulous. The downside is they are rarely the most creative of people, but they may well possess excellent analytical and problem-solving skills. While the promotion-minded generate lots of ideas, (whether they are good and bad), it often takes someone prevention-minded to tell the difference between the two.

Although everyone is concerned at various times with both promotion and prevention, most of us have a dominant motivational focus. It affects what we pay attention to, what we value, and how we feel when we succeed or fail. It determines our strengths and weaknesses, both personally and professionally. And it’s why the decisions and preferences of our differently focused colleagues can seem so odd at times.

Most people are able to identify their dominant focus.

Promotion-focused people

Prevention-focused people

  • Work quickly
  • Consider lots of alternatives and are great at brainstorming
  • Are open to new opportunities
  • Are optimists
  • Plan only for best-case scenarios
  • Seek positive feedback and lose steam without it
  • Feel dejected or depressed when things go wrong
  • Work slowly and deliberately
  • Tend to be accurate
  • Are prepared for the worst
  • Are stressed by short deadlines
  • Stick to tried-and-true ways of doing things
  • Are uncomfortable with praise or optimism
  • Feel worried or anxious when things go wrong


By identifying which type you are will help you to embrace your strengths as well as to recognise and compensate for your weaknesses. To some extent most people will do this intuitively. Research suggests that often prevention-focused individuals take up what organisational psychologists call ‘conventional and realistic’ work (e.g. working as administrators, bookkeepers, accountants and technicians). These roles involve use of knowledge, the understanding of rules and regulations, careful execution, and a propensity for thoroughness: they are roles in which attention to detail is important.

People who are promotion-focused are more likely to pursue ‘artistic and investigative’ roles such as developers, inventors, creation and design and consultants. These roles lending themselves to ‘thinking outside of the box’ where people are rewarded for creative and innovative thinking, and being practical is not emphasised.

Creating Motivational Fit

Knowing your focus, can help you to choose role models, frame goals, seek or give feedback, and provide incentives and support that will strengthen your motivation or your team. Motivational fit enhances and sustains both the eagerness of the promotion-minded and the vigilance of the prevention-minded, making work seem more valuable and thus boosting both performance and enjoyment. Problems occur when the motivational strategies we use do not align with our dominant focus – we will be less likely to achieve our goals.

Choosing a Role Model

Studies suggest that promotion-focused individuals tend to be more engaged when they hear about an inspirational role model. In contrast, prevention-focused people are more likely to be impressed by a strong cautionary tale about someone whose path they should not follow because thinking about avoiding mistakes feels right to them. We all naturally pay attention to the kind of story that resonates most with us. As a colleague or a manager, think about whether the stories and anecdotes you share with others are motivational for them.

On a similar vein, it is also important to seek out mentors and, when possible, future bosses whose focus matches your own and, if you are a manager, to adapt your style to suit each employee’s focus. Research suggests that promotion-minded employees thrive under transformational leaders, who support creative solutions, have a long-term vision, and look for ways to shake things up. The prevention-focused are at their best under transactional leaders, who emphasise rules and standards, protect the status quo, tend toward micromanagement, discourage errors, and focus on effectively reaching more-immediate goals.

When people find themselves working for a leader who fits, they say that they value their work significantly more and are less likely to want to leave the organization. When team members and managers are ‘mismatched’, levels of enjoyment and commitment decline.

by Andrew Kakabadse and Nada K. Kakabadse

What happens when differing personality types work together yet don’t appreciate each other’s strengths? Over the past 20 years we have done research with leaders in more than 12,500 private, public, military, and government organizations across 21 countries.

Here’s what we’ve found:

When Jane Promotion manages Joe Prevention, she rarely sees him as a threat. But she may overlook and underutilize his strengths and fail to encourage him with defined tasks and clear objectives.
When both individuals are subordinate, their contrasting approaches lead to tension. Joe Prevention sees Jane Promotion as a threat, while Jane gets frustrated by the barriers Joe creates and may openly challenge him.
When Joe Prevention and Jane Promotion are both bosses, a power struggle may develop. Jane will emphasize successes, undermining Joe, while Joe heaps on criticism, often behind Jane’s back.
Even when Joe Prevention manages Jane Promotion, he may feel threatened by her and seek to limit her activity and opportunities as a result. She will resent the micromanagement and may eventually leave.

Andrew Kakabadse is a professor of international management development at Cranfield University’s School of Management in the UK. Nada K. Kakabadse is a professor of management and business research at the University of Northampton’s Business School in the UK.

Framing the Goal

Sometimes even minor tweaks in how you think about a goal or the language you use to describe it can make a difference. This point was illustrated well in a recent study conducted with football coaches in German. The coaches in a highly regarded semi-professional soccer league were told to prepare their players for high-pressure penalty kicks with one of two statements:

Statement 1: ‘You are going to shoot five penalties. Your aspiration is to score at least three times.’

Statement 2: ‘You are going to shoot five penalties. Your obligation is to not miss more than twice.’

The slight wording change had a significant impact: players did significantly better when the instructions were framed to match their dominant motivational focus, which the researchers had previously measured. This was especially true for prevention-minded players, who scored nearly twice as often when they received the ‘do not miss’ instructions.

So when you are trying to keep yourself or someone else motivated, be aware that promotion-focused people need to think about what they are doing in terms of positives (what they aspire to, how best to accomplish the task) and prevention-focused people should instead think about negatives (potential mistakes, obstacles to avoid).

Seeking or Giving Feedback

Once goals are set in a way that creates motivational fit, it is necessary to sustain the fit by seeking out and/or giving the right kind of feedback. Promotion-focused people tend to increase their efforts when a supervisor offers them praise for excellent work. In contrast, prevention-focused people are more responsive to criticism and the looming possibility of failure.

This is not to say that you should seek out ‘false’ praise or ‘unwarranted’ criticism or as a manager you should give people ‘false’ praise or ‘unwarranted’ criticism. You can however, if you are promotion-focused, look for people who will give you the positive, inspirational message you need. Similarly, if you are prevention-focused, 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, it is important to always provide honest feedback, but you might want to adjust your emphasis to maximise motivation. This means not being too overly effusive when praising the prevention-focused, and not glossing over mistakes or areas that need improvement. Likewise, avoid being overly critical when delivering bad news to the promotion-focused as they need reassurance that you have confidence in their ability and recognise their good work.

Providing Incentives

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 (e.g. If I finish this project by Friday, I will treat myself to a ….’ or ‘If I don’t finish this project by Friday, I will spend the weekend …… ‘). As a manager the same principle can be used with teams and individuals to create incentives and you can push to make sure your employees’ incentives create fit. By the way, it is also important to avoid incentives that are not aligned with focus as they can be de-motivating.

At Exponential, we believe that a promotion focus and a prevention focus are two legitimate ways of looking at the same goal. It might be that you may think your business should concentrate on creating new opportunities for advancement, whilst some of your colleagues believe the emphasis should be on protecting relationships with existing clients. The fact is both positions are correct.

The truth of the matter is that promotion-focused and prevention-focused people are necessary for all organisation’s success.A success usually involves achieving a balanced perspective. Having both co-exist of course leaves the doors open to potential infighting, conflicts and communication challenges, but isn’t that what management is about?

John Moore has over 20 years experience of training and developing Managers, Coaches, Consultants and businesses. As Managing Director of Exponential Training, John researches, speaks, blogs and writes about how to improve performance. He also designs and delivers engaging, fun and interactive learning programmes. John is a Fellow Chartered Manager and has worked with managers and organisations in over 20 different countries.


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