I once worked with a business leader – somebody of extraordinary intelligence and passion, thinking about the success of the company day and night....‘That’s lucky,’ you might say… Yes, except for the fact that it often felt like we were all working in a fire department. Everything was urgent, priorities mushroomed and even though everybody worked hard, we never managed to make much progress. In fact, the business was going backwards…
Sound familiar? This situation - all too common in many organisations, has a very simple explanation. We all have strategies for getting ourselves motivated and our strategies fall largely into two categories: some of us motivate ourselves by moving away from what we don’t want - an ‘away from’ motivational meta programme and others tend to move towards what they want - a ‘towards’ motivational meta programme. Yet, some others display full flexibility in applying both patterns.
As you can imagine, the implications can be huge.
So what is your motivational strategy?
Meta programmes are powerful filters and habit systems that operate mostly at an unconscious level and determine what we notice and put our attention to.
Those who display a preference for an ‘away from’ meta programme, tend to be in constant problem solving mode. They sort out problems or things they don’t want and then spend all their energy and determination on preventing these negative outcomes from happening. They are energised by threats and automatically pick up on what needs to be fixed. However this also means that once the initial threat has disappeared or the undesired situation has been resolved, the person may either lose motivation, or find another reason to move ‘away from’. So somebody habitually operating on the extreme end of an ‘away from’ motivational pattern can find themselves running after every problem and unable to focus on anything else when there is a problem to solve.
Those with a strong preference for an ‘away from’ behavioural pattern also tend to perform quite well under time pressure. They will generally wait until the last minute and when the pressure is on, work hard to avoid not meeting the deadline or failing their task, etc.
People with a preference for a ‘towards’ motivational pattern move towards goals, they don’t naturally focus on what can go wrong and often don’t take obstacles into account. Their motivation is triggered by a goal. They are naturally good at prioritising because they never lose sight of the important goal that is driving them. Whilst somebody who is using a ‘towards’ motivational strategy stays focused on the goals, they can often overlook potential challenges and problems.
Now, imagine what happens when a senior leader operates off the scale on an ‘away from’ motivational pattern…
Or what about the opposite, when a business leader has such a strong preference for a ‘towards’ motivational pattern, that they simply forget to consider what can go wrong on the way and therefore don’t plan for obstacles.
Do you recognise this behaviour in the organisations that you have been part of?
Here is an easy way to detect a person’s motivational pattern.
Pick any important project or goal and ask ‘what would having this goal or project do for you?’ They will either tell you what they will get, or what they will be able to avoid. We live in a society that is hyped about positive thinking and people are often trained to focus on what they want instead of what they don’t want. So the first time you ask this question you may get a well rehearsed positive statement about desired outcomes.
If you then ask them about what that outcome they gave you will do for them, it is highly likely that if the person has a preference for an ‘away from’ motivational pattern, they will eventually tell you what they will be able to avoid thanks to this project - for example never be poor again, avoid conflict, won’t have to do too much overtime etc.
So what? Once you have established a person’s motivational pattern, how can it be used to benefit ourselves and our people.
Like with all meta programmes, it’s important to emphasise that there is no right or wrong when it comes to motivational drivers. People having a preference to an ‘away from’ meta programme are not naturally ‘negative’ and ‘pessimistic’, they just happen to use a perception filter that sorts for what needs to be avoided. There are advantages and disadvantages to both patterns and there are situations where one pattern may be more useful than the other.
Understanding these motivational drivers and using the language that appeals to each pattern can be very impactful in many contexts: negotiations, conflict management, leading a team, presentations – the list goes on. When you are aware of somebody’s motivational pattern, simply match them: if they have an ‘away from’ preference, tell them what they can avoid as a result of this activity, project or approach. Whereas If they have a ‘towards’ preference, focus on the goals they can attain.
‘Away from’ pattern – how to help them prioritise?
While solving problems is a highly appreciated skill, it’s easy to lose sight of where the ship is sailing to. If you are working with somebody who likes to fight fires all the time, ask them to pause, take a step back and ask themselves:
“What’s the bigger purpose here?”
“How is what I am doing today relevant to the bigger goal that I want to achieve?”
“What really needs to be addressed now and what can I de-prioritise in order to make time for the really important stuff? ”
‘Towards’ pattern – how to help them plan for the future?
People with a strong preference for the ‘towards’ pattern can often discard any difficulty that they may meet on their path. They may even be so naive as to think everything will work their way. This is simply because their focus is fully on the goal and therefore they apply an internal filter that does not naturally allow for challenges.
What can you do in this case? Have the person ask themselves:
- What can go wrong in this situation?
- What can I do today to be prepared? what do I need to plan for?
Understanding motivational strategies and flexing behaviours that match people’s preferences can be instrumental to achieving the best outcomes.
Why not take a moment to think about which situations your own motivational pattern has been useful? And where it has not served you so well?
Sophie Giorgobiani is an HR Business Partner and Coach