What really motivates you? A book review of "Focus"

Focus side shotI have been a fan of Heidi Grant Halvorson since her book Succeed came out in 2011. I was so enthralled that I took a course from Dr. Halvorson through MentorCoach (which is a really great resource for positive psychology speakers and insights – you should put yourself on their mailing list). I blogged about Heidi’s course and research here .

The basic premise of Succeed is that you need to know yourself for goal attainment. Essentially, there are two types of motivation – promotion and prevention. If you know which one gets you going, you have a better chance of realizing your goals. Focus builds on these different ways of seeing the world in work, personal life, parenting, love and so on. But what Focus also does is take this notion beyond yourself – how can you motivate others, even those you don’t know, even large mass audiences – to influence and attain mutual success.

Promotion-focused people are motivated by rewards. They want to maximize gains. They are motivated by opportunities. They look to attain. Success means getting something and having better.

Prevention-focused people are motivated by minimizing losses. They want to prevent problems. Success means nothing gets broken, and the status quo is kept safe.

Both are important – though you might instinctively think that one is better than the other. Both are valuable and necessary – and what I really appreciate about Focus is that the authors (Halvorson’s co-author is Dr. E. Tory Higgins) recognize that someone can be motivated one way in a certain domain, and then another in a different life domain. For example, I can be very prevention-focused with my children and still be promotion-focused at work.

Anyone can also switch focus, at least temporarily, as a result of changing situations or perspective. Furthermore, some situations are inherently promotion-focused (think, buying a lottery ticket) and some situations are inherently prevention-focused (like getting your flu shot). That can make motivation difficult – how would you get a promotion-focused person to get a flu shot?

There were several take-aways for me from this book. Here are a few things that I highlighted:

Promotion motivation is, at its core, about satisfying our need for nurturance. It’s about filling your life with positives: love and admiration, but also accomplishment, advancement, and growth….

Prevention motivation, on the other hand, is about satisfying our need for security. It’s about doing what’s necessary to maintain a satisfactory life: keeping safe, doing what’s right. (p. 5)

I appreciated this focus on needs, because it helped me to see how the different types of motivation fit into different aspects of life. We all need both – nurturance and safety. But perhaps some of us need or want one slightly more than the other, at least at different times.

Where does this come from? The authors suggest that it’s both nature and nurture – some of us might be born hard-wired a certain way, and this can be reinforced by how your parents rewarded and punished you.

Furthermore, this motivation focus can affect our world views:

The promotion-focused generally have what psychologists call a leniency (or risky) bias – and as a result, they will end up with not only a lot more hits, but also a lot more false alarms…

Prevention-focused people, on the other hand, are normally a cautious and careful lot, and, when uncertain, their preferred response is “no”… When they are currently safe, they have what psychologists call a conservative bias. They don’t risk taking chances that could make them lose their safety…

It’s worth nothing that when prevention-focused people think they are already in danger… they are no longer so cautious. When disaster strikes, they will do whatever is necessary, risk anything, to be safe again. (pp 14-15)

This was super-powerful for me, because it explains so much about human behaviour – mine as well as others’. Much of what I do at work is about change management. The basis of successful change management is ensuring that people feel safe, because we can’t and don’t change when we feel threatened. However, it seems that “safety” means different things to different people. Prevention-focused people work hard to maintain safety, so if they are currently safe, then they won’t want to change. Perhaps the way to get prevention-focused people to change is to focus on what they might “lose” with the status quo, and make them feel unsafe so they will work to get to a future, changed state of safety?

Halvorson and Higgins also go on to say that a promotion-focused person performs at his/her best when things are going well. Prevention-focused people are at their best in a crisis. This feels like a silver lining on the dark prevention-focused cloud. From my own personal experience, as well as the anecdotes in the book, it seems like promotion-focused people get a lot of the glory because they attain. Prevention-focused people work in the shadows. No one gives out awards or recognition for faithfully maintaining the status quo and preventing all the problems that never happened – because no one sees it.

Of course, there are many questions as well. Are there gender differences? In my anecdotal experience, more fathers seems to be promotion-focused and more mothers seem to be prevention-focused. Are there correlates to the P and J in the Myers-Briggs (even though the MBTI isn’t really a good psychological assessment of anything… and more here)? Are there links to happiness, well-being, life satisfaction? What about having a “happy life” vs a “meaningful life”? (For more on those differences, check out articles here and here and here.) Are there correlates to specific VIA or Gallup strengths?

Well you can probably tell that I was quite taken by this book and the research. I look forward to continuing to follow Heidi Grant Halvorson (is that a promotion-focused statement?) to see where her work takes her – and how the rest of us can learn from it.


Are you prevention- or promotion-focused? How has this helped you in your work and life? Try the quick assessment on Halvorson’s website. How did you do? Share your insights in the comments section below!


Lisa Sansom

Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.

Reader Interactions


  1. Judy Krings says

    Love your synopsis here, Lisa. I also took Heidi Halvorson’s MentorCoach class. Her research has wonderfully helped me assist clients in moving forward in their positive psychology coaching sessions. Most have “Aha!” moments of awareness re: goal-seeking and attaining. When they discover their promotion and/or prevention focus, they then challenge themselves more to attain their goals with more self-compassion.

    Many thanks!

    • LVS Consulting says

      Thanks so much Judy – I really appreciate your insights and sharing! I know that, for myself, it took me a while to wrap my head around what Heidi meant by promotion and prevention goals – and now that I think I’ve gotten it, it makes so much sense in so many situations! And totally agree about the self-compassion – we can recognize our strengths and where / when we are at our best, and set ourselves up for success more often!

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