Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Is Your Team Promotion Or Prevention-Focused? Here’s Why It Matters To Leaders

Promotion vs Prevention focus

The following is a guest post by Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson.

Is your employee a risk-taker, or does he avoid risks like the plague? Does she get uncomfortable with too much optimism or praise, or is she known for her sunny outlook? Do some assignments always seem particularly hard for her, while she excels at others naturally?

The answers to these questions give you a window into your employee’s motivational focus – something every leader needs to understand in order to give feedback and create incentives that are persuasive and motivating.

There are two ways to look at the goals we pursue at work (and in life). Let’s start with a goal many of us share: “doing my job well.” For some of us, doing our jobs well is about the potential for advancement, achievement and rewards. It’s about what we might gain if we are successful, how we might end up better off. If you are (or your employee is) someone who sees goals this way, you have what’s called a promotion focus.

For the rest of us, doing our jobs well is about security – about not losing everything we’ve worked so hard for. When you are prevention focused, you want to avoid danger, fulfill your responsibilities, and be someone people can count on. You want to keep things running smoothly.

What’s important to know is that promotion and prevention-focused people work very differently to reach the same goal. They use different strategies, have different strengths, and are prone to different kinds of mistakes. One group will be motivated by applause, the other by criticism. One group may give up too soon – the other may not know when to quit.

The key to helping your team reach their goals your goals is to identify their focus, and learn to work with it instead of against it.

What’s Their Focus?

There are online assessments you and your employees can take to identify your motivational focus, but you can also get a pretty good sense of it by comparing any employee’s behavior to each of the following descriptions:

Promotion People are…

  • Creative and innovative
  • Comfortable taking chances
  • Optimistic
  • Speedy workers
  • Good at seizing opportunities
  • (Downside: They are also more likely to make mistakes, less likely to have a back-up plan if things go wrong, bad with details, and more likely to take a risk that lands them in hot water.)

Prevention People are…

  • Great planners
  • Deliberate, thorough
  • Cautious, skeptical
  • Accurate workers
  • Analytical, good at evaluating
  • (Downside: They are also more likely to miss out on great opportunities, get too bogged down with details, and have a tendency to be overly-anxious.)

Working With Focus

Studies show that the way to be most effective in leading your team is to understand how they work best, and use the strategies that match each individual’s particular motivation. Here is a sample of what I mean:


When your employee is promotion-focused, their motivation feels like eagerness – an enthusiastic desire to really go for it. So encourage them to be optimists, and provide frequent praise (though only when it’s deserved, of course). Confidence heightens their energy and intensity. Doubting themselves takes the wind right out of their sails.

When your employee is prevention-focused, their motivation feels like vigilance – they are always on the lookout for danger. Vigilance actually increases in response to negative feedback or skepticism. There’s nothing like the looming possibility of failure to get their prevention juices flowing. Over-confidence or effusive praise, however, may lead them to let down their guard, and undermine their motivation – so beware of both. Offer honest, realistic feedback and focus on ways to improve performance.


Allow your employees to make decisions in the way that feels right for them. Promotion-focused people make the best decisions when they weigh the relative pros of Option A and B, when they think about why something is worth doing, and when they trust their instincts.

The prevention-minded, on the other hand, prefer to weigh the cons of Option A & B, and go with lesser of two evils. They make the best decisions when they think about how something could be done, and when they can point to rational reasons, rather than feelings, to justify their choices.

Problem-Solving Approach

Expect your promotion employees to be more exploratory and abstract in their thinking. They generate lots of options and possibilities when coming up with ways to reach goals – they are creative, and always consider alternatives.

Prevention-focused thinking is concrete and specific – they will pick a plan and want to stick to it. Prevention people drill down to the details, and focus on the nitty gritty of what’s still needs to be done. And they are more comfortable with tried-and-true methods rather than “innovative” but untested ones.


Promotion-focused employees are more motivated by incentives that are framed as gains or reward. If you meet this sales target, you will get a bonus. If generate a certain amount of new business, then you get a Caribbean vacation.

Prevention-focused employees care more about hanging on to what they already have, so frame incentives as opportunities to lose. Everyone gets a bonus this year, except those who fail to meet their sales target. Everyone on the team gets a Caribbean vacation, except those who generate too little new business.

Which Focus is the Best Focus?

People always want to know – is it better to be promotion or prevention focused? The truth is, both kinds of motivation can bring you success, and each has its pitfalls. Each brings something of value (e.g., bold solutions, attention to detail) to your organization. In fact, no organization can truly thrive without a balance of promotion and prevention motivation – to keep you moving forward, while maintaining the progress you’ve already made.

As a leader, be sure to appreciate and recognize the value of your promotion and prevention-minded team members, and help each of them to work in ways that bring out their very best.

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson is the Associate Director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School. Heidi is also a regular contributor to Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, WSJ.com, Forbes, The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership.

Her latest book, co-written with Tory Higgins.is “Focus” Use Different Ways of Seeing The World For Success and Influence” is now available on Amazon.com (and Amazon.ca for Canadian readers).

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2 Comments » | Tags: , , , , , , , , | May 7, 2013 by |

  1. On May 9th, 2013 at 9:14 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Wow! I really like this post. Never viewed employees as being either promotion or prevention people. Unfortunately I know more prevention people which helps me better understand why I am witnessing so many corporate silos these days. Or maybe it is just my industry, foodservice.

  2. On May 12th, 2013 at 4:42 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jim; I'm glad you enjoyed it. As Heidi's piece and research reveals, being prevention-focused isn't necessarily a bad thing. Rather, all that's required is a shift in what and how we communicate to prevention-focused employees to encourage their active involvement in our shared efforts.

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