News & Opinion

Focus...for Success and Influence

Sally Haldorson

April 19, 2013


Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph. D. and E.

Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. and E. Tony Higgins, Ph.D., Hudson Street Books, 251 pages, $25.95, Hardcover, April 2013, ISBN 9781594631023

I was a late-bloomer in terms of athletics. While I played some middle school sports just because that's what everyone did in our small town, book reading became my sport of choice once I tired of bench sitting. But I started playing adult league tennis in my late-30s, never having played when I was younger, and found a sport to fall in love with. It's like active chess. A Zen koan to solve in real time. But as anyone who plays tennis knows, the psychological aspect of the game can also be the most frustrating. I know what my physical limitations are, and accept them to some degree, but the challenge remains to not tighten up during important points, to not get sloppy if I'm winning easily, to not try too hard when I'm on the verge of winning, to gracefully accept a loss to a better player, or to turn around a match I shouldn't be losing. In other words, learning how to focus in a way that works for me could change my game. And maybe...if I can figure that missing ingredient out on the tennis court, then I'll be able to bring that knowledge and success to my work. So you can imagine my enthusiasm for Halvorson and Higgins' Focus: Using Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins run the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. As is evident by its name, the center studies what motivates people. And the somewhat surprising result of their twenty years of study is that not everyone focuses the same way based on their perception of what is good and what is bad.

We all know that people want good things--good products, ideas, and experiences--and they want to avoid bad ones. It would be nice for psychologists (and managers, marketers, teachers, and parents) if that was all we needed to know about motivation--if motivation were that simple. But it isn't. To understand...we begin with an insight that one of us (Higgins) had over twenty years ago: there are two fundamentally different kinds of good (and kinds of bad).
So what does this mean? For some people, the prospect of rewards (money, awards, attention) motivates them. Halvorson and Higgins call this "promotion focus." These people are strivers who value advancement despite the risks. To use a couple of clichs for better understanding, these people 'play to win' and view the world with a 'glass half full' sensibility. For other people, who have "prevention focus," security is their primary motivator. "[F]or the prevention-focused, the ultimate 'bad' is a loss you failed to stop: a mistake made, a punishment received, a danger you failed to avoid." The authors tell us that no matter which focus is your primary motivator, it affects virtually everything you do.
Some things will make sense that never did before. You'll finally see why it's so hard to be good with both the big ideas and the details. Why the "spontaneous" one in any couple usually isn't the one who balances the checkbook. Why you either underestimate how long everything will take or overestimate how difficult it will be--and why someone different from you can seem so strange. You'll understand the choices you've made, the experiences you are drawn to, and why you tend to prefer one brand of product to another. And you'll be able to use that knowledge to enhance your well-being and be more effective in your life.
The first step is to determine which kind of motivational focus is your kind of motivational focus. It won't surprise you to find out that pessimists tend to be prevention focused, while optimists tend to be promotion focused. Understanding this will not only help you set up ways for yourself to succeed but for others too. "Being able to identify and understand each focus can provide you with an invaluable tool in the workplace for increasing your employees' effectiveness...." This understanding is transferable to many realms, such as parenting and teaching. The key is to find the "motivational fit."
Put simply, motivational fit happens when you create a match not only between what people want and what they get, but also between what they want and how they go about getting it--the way they reach their goals. For example, you can lose weight by eating less or by exercising more. You can realize your retirement dreams by embracing risk or avoiding it like the plague. You can make a good impression by saying more or saying less. People definitely have preferences about the way they do things--about the process, not just the outcome--and those preferences are determined by their promotion or prevention motivation.
Think about this in terms of marketing. An example the authors use is writing a pamphlet that emphasizes either eating well to gain health or to prevent illness. Are you creating a campaign that is prevention focused or promotion focused? Maybe your clients are more concerned about saving money now than they are in spending money now for a software program that might save money down the line. Maybe your customers are worried about wasting time more than they are in learning to use your product. Sometimes it is just as important to understand what the other person is motivated by. Or, the authors explain, think about this in terms of decision making. Are you the kind of person influenced by the advantages of a situation, so you are more prone to act if there are more pros than cons? Or are you the kind of person who hesitates even when there is just one significant drawback? Just because we think we are being objective when making decisions, doesn't mean we are actually able to see the situation without bias, particularly of the motivational kind. Halvorson and Higgins also come to the conclusion that really successful people learn how to motivate themselves in both ways. For example, to lose weight, it's good to be reward-oriented: lost pounds, new clothes, self-esteem. But to keep weight off, it's better to be concerned about slipping and paying attention to the details. And understanding which motivational focus you have naturally can really help you understand why you either aren't successful or how you can succeed in the future. The pursuit of understanding my tennis game has definitely advanced by reading Focus. While I believe myself to be prevention focused in life, I've learned that I tend to be promotion oriented on the tennis court. I take a lot of risks when I play because I like to be in control of the point. (Maybe playing tennis is a little microcosm of how I'd like to be in life: more adventurous.) But the authors consider tennis players to be more prevention-focused because errors count against them, so I think I might need to adjust my approach and cut down on those unforced errors! In sum, whether you'd like to know what prevents you from moving up in your company or winning on the court, Focus is easy-to-read and insightful. The authors say it best: "Your life is more empowered once you have learned about promotion and prevention focus and what fits with them."

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