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Better safe than sorry…? Nah, let’s do it!
If you would like to look back on your life when you are old, would you plan to say that it was a great adventure, or that you felt safe?
The answer has a lot to do with your personality and how you regulate your motivations with respect to what you want to achieve: do you focus on promotion (self-growth) or prevention (no errors)?
The same is valid for your co-workers; it helps to understand what motivates them and to avoid misunderstandings, wrong expectations and mismatches between leaders and their direct reports.
How do you recognise the 2 types of regulatory focuses and what motivates them? What is the impact in the workplace? What are the implications for Leaders and HR responsibilities?
“A person with a promotion regulatory focus may not be suitable for a Operational Health & Safety position, whereas a the Head of Innovation should not have a prevention regulatory focus.”
Promotion regulatory focus: let’s do it!
A person using a promotion focus strives for goals through self-growth and pursuit of their ideal selves.
A promotion-focused orientation tends to center on hopes and aspirations when regulating behavior. This results in motivation by accomplishments and salient outcomes of gains (positive and desired) or non-gains (negative and undesired).
These individuals do not consider potential losses when striving for their goals; rather, they strategically move toward desired end-states (and away from undesired). They do this by maximizing their chances for a match between their current states and the actual outcome.
They ensure that they do not commit errors of omission and they actively pursue goals by trying out numerous behaviours to see what works.
Additionally, promotion focus results in pleasure when rewarded for and pain when not rewarded for accomplishments. This results in emotional responses associated with cheerfulness and dejection, respectively.
Prevention regulatory focus: better safe than sorry
Prevention focus emphasizes the ideal self and focuses goal-striving strategies on the fulfillment of duty or responsibility.
Prevention-focused individuals attend to obligation and accountability in the regulation of behavior, resulting in motivation to prevent mistakes. Their perception of the most important outcomes are as non-loss (positive and desired) or loss (negative and undesired). Their strategic movement toward desired end-states (and away from undesired) are characterised by minimizing their chances for a mismatch between their current state and the outcome.
These individuals do this by ensuring they do not commit errors of commission. They guard against committing errors in pursuit of their goals.
Furthermore, they experience pleasure when there is an absence of negative consequences. They experience pain when those negatives are present. This results in the emotional experience of inactivity and agitation, respectively.
A hierarchical model of regulatory focus where both types want a successful career
Promotion regulatory focus
System: I desire a good career and success gives me a sense of accomplishment
Strategy: Use of eagerness strategies associated with promotion focus for desired outcomes
- Gains: I take on many projects by having a low threshold for approval, resulting in many successes
- Non-gains: I avoid ‘wasting’ time on due diligence in lieu of project completion, resulting in higher rates of failure
Context: My boss demands more financial profit (stimulation of promotion focus)
- To strive for gains: Project approval threshold becomes lower and more projects are approved
- To avoid non-gains: Diminished due diligence activities and project rejection is decreased because fewer issues are found
Prevention regulatory focus
System: I don’t want a bad career, success gives me financial security
Strategy: Use of careful strategies associated with prevention focus for desired outcomes
- Non-losses: I invest time in due diligence, resulting in fewer completed projects
- Losses (avoid): I avoid taking on projects by having a high threshold for approval, resulting in a lower failure rate
Context: My boss demands less financial loss (stimulation of prevention focus)
- To strive for non-losses: I intensify due diligence activities and increase project rejection because more issues are found
- To avoid losses: Project approval threshold becomes higher when I want to avoid losses and fewer projects will be approved
Motivation & performance:
- When alignment occurs between action and a person’s nature, individuals experience increased motivational strength and activation
- When the situation aligns with the regulatory focus of the person, the individual “feels right,” which increases motivation and effort in goal pursuit
- When task incentives are aligned with the regulatory focus of the person, both promotion focus and prevention focused individuals enhanced motivation and performance
- A message framed as promotion focus is more persuasive when gains are the focal outcome, while a message framed as prevention focus is more persuasive when losses are the focal outcome
- Promotion-focused individuals rely on positive information when overloaded with information, because few cognitive resources are available to process information that does not “fit”. The same is true for negative information and prevention focus
- Goals in the distant future fit individuals with a promotion focus, so they increase motivation in response to regulatory focus in its most abstract form, the system level (see above: I desire a good career and success gives me a sense of accomplishment)
- Generally, individuals with a prevention focus should experience less procrastination as a result of a preference for responsibility, while promotion-focused individuals procrastinate more
Recruiting, job design and team building implications:
The HR implications for regulatory focus encompass a broad range of topics, including ethics, job analysis, job design, performance management, compensation, training and development, and selection and recruitment.
Depending on the job type, responsibilities and demands, HR needs to identify whether a promotion or prevention focus is needed. A person with a promotion regulatory focus may not be suitable for a Operational Health & Safety position, whereas a the Head of Innovation should not have a prevention regulatory focus.
In some cases a combination of promotion and prevention focus may be useful. Imagine a a department which needs to develop new products; a potentially new product should be identified by promotion focused people and vetted by prevention focused people.
A training intervention may help employees and leaders recognize when it is appropriate to switch focus to maximize task effectiveness. For example, in contexts where production and safety are at odds with one another, leaders could learn to recognize when tasks require speed (promotion) and when they require safety (prevention). This capability could lead to dynamic optimal fit processes between task requirements and regulatory focus, when demands and requirements change.
Obviously, labeling people as either promotion regulatory focused or prevention regulatory focused individuals, should not be your primary indicator for your recruitment and hiring programs, nor for job and team design.
However, being aware of how people regulate their focus, is a valuable addition to other personality classifications, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or leadership styles (We all work in a House of Cards).
Identification of the regulatory focus of an employee, may help you finding why this person is not feeling comfortable with the task, not performing, procrastinating–or the opposite. It may also help you finding the right incentives that boost motivation and performance. It could also support you in structuring your teams for the right outcome.