Why aren’t companies hiring? Why aren’t homes selling, despite bargain pricing? Why is growth and innovation in some industries so sluggish?
Americans have a well-earned reputation for risk-taking, but these days we are something of a timid lot. Our reluctance to stick our collective neck out has everything to do with the psychology of motivation — specifically, how we think about the goals we pursue. The problem, in a nutshell, is simply this: when making decisions, lately many of us have been focused much more on what we have to lose than on what we might gain.
Whenever we see our goals — whether they are organizational or personal — in terms of what we have to lose, we have what’s called a prevention focus. Prevention motivation is about obtaining security, avoiding mistakes, and fulfilling responsibilities. It’s about trying to hang on to what you’ve already got and keep things running smoothly, and it isn’t at all conducive to taking chances.
If, instead, we see our goals in terms of what we might gain, we have what’s called a promotion focus. Promotion motivation is about getting ahead, maximizing your potential, and reaping the rewards. It’s about never missing an opportunity for a win, even when doing so means taking a leap of faith.
In the last decade, researchers in psychology and management departments across the country have conducted hundreds of studies showing that promotion and prevention motivations lead to different strengths and weaknesses, and very different strategic approaches. The promotion focus on potential gain leads to speed, creativity, innovation, and embracing risk, while the prevention focus on avoiding loss leads to accuracy, careful deliberation, thoroughness, and a strong preference for the devil you know.
The recent recession, coupled with financial and health care reform, have left American businesses (and individual Americans) focused far more on keeping what they’ve got than boldly going where they’ve never gone before. People don’t want to rock the boat at a time when consumers (and jobs) are harder to find, and when risk feels like recklessness. Unfortunately, they forget that without organizational innovation and growth, no business (and no job) will be safe for long.
If you’ve got great, forward-thinking ideas, and their reception has been lukewarm at best, you are probably wishing your boss, your coworkers, or your clients were a bit more comfortable with risk. There are really only two solutions: get them to adopt the promotion mindset (the harder option in the current climate), or use the right language to work with their prevention mindset instead. You may be thinking of your great idea as an opportunity for gain, but you can always reframe it as an opportunity for avoiding loss.
To persuade the prevention-minded person to take a risk, recent research by psychologists Abigail Scholer, Xi Zou, Ken Fujita, Steve Stroessner, and E. Tory Higgins suggests that you should emphasise how a course of action can keep your company (or your client) safe and secure — how it will help them to avoid making a terrible mistake. A new venture isn’t a chance to get in front of the pack, but a way to not fall behind. (“Everyone is moving in this direction. It’s inevitable. We could lose market share if aren’t prepared for the future.”)
Matching a pitch to the listener’s current motivation is the key to effective persuasion. Research shows that even the most timid, prevention-minded person among us will gladly take a risk, once you help him understand why it would be a greater risk not to.
Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. is a motivational psychologist, and author of the new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street Press, 2011). She is also an expert blogger on motivation and leadership for Fast Company and Psychology Today. Her personal blog, The Science of Success, can be found at www.heidigranthalvorson.com. Follow her on Twitter @hghalvorson.