Friday, April 19, 2013

Halvorson & Higgins, Focus

People can be roughly divided into two camps, Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins argue in Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World to Power Success and Influence (Hudson Street Press, 2013). Essentially, they’re offering a modification of the across-the-board findings of behavioral economics. Some people, they maintain, focus on the win; others, on avoiding the loss. That is, most people have a dominant motivational focus—either promotion or prevention.

Promotion focus is about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities. … Prevention focus, on the other hand, is about minimizing losses, to keep things working.” (p. 3) “Promotion motivation is … about filling your life with positives: love and admiration, but also accomplishment, advancement, and growth. Promotion goals are ones that we would ideally like to achieve…. When we do obtain whatever positive thing we’ve been seeking, we feel the high-energy, cheerfulness-related emotions: happiness, joy, and excitement. … Prevention motivation, on the other hand, is about … doing what’s necessary to maintain a satisfactory life: keeping safe, doing what’s right. Prevention goals are ones that we feel we ought to achieve—ones we think of as duties, obligations, or responsibilities. … When we do successfully maintain safety and security, we feel the low-energy, quiescence-related emotions: calm, relaxation, and relief.” (p. 5)

The authors are quick to point out that people may have different dominant motivations in different areas of their lives. A person may, for instance, be promotion focused when it comes to his job but prevention focused when dealing with his investments. Moreover, certain activities themselves have promotion or prevention qualities. Think of playing the lottery (I don’t) vs. getting a flu shot (I do).

Promotion-focused folks are the optimistic, can-do types. Mind you, they’re also the ones that can get themselves and the world into serious trouble. We have only to think of rogue traders. By contrast, those who are prevention focused have a maybe-it-won’t-work-out mentality and hence are vigilant. Think of Andy Grove’s famous quotation: “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”

Put another way, the promotion-focused “really get going when they feel they are doing well. … The prevention-focused, on the other hand, really hop to it when things aren’t going so well. The possibility of failure enhances their motivation, and their performance, too.” (p. 24)

Businesses need both types of people; they “need to excel at innovation and maintenance, at speed and accuracy.” (p. 47) Moreover, they need to convince both types of people to buy their products. Businesses, in the authors’ words, must create a motivational fit for both their employees and their customers.

Focus touches on many aspects of our lives, including decision-making, parenting, and marital relations (mixed-motivation marriages, by the way, tend to be the most successful). Although the book’s thesis is pretty straightforward, the authors give it a lot of color. All in all, a worthwhile read.

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