How to Recognize Strengths (Especially Your Own)

Promotion and prevention-focused people work differently to reach the same goal. They use different strategies, have different strengths and are prone to different kinds of mistakes.
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Why do colleagues working toward a common goal so often fail to see eye-to-eye when it comes to achieving it? At times, you feel like you aren't on the same page, or even the same planet, as your coworkers, even when everyone involved is clearly capable and has a proven track record of success. Why the disconnect?

The answer is a remarkably simple one: There is more than one way to look at the same goal. Take, for example, a goal that many of us share: I want to do my job exceptionally well. For some of us, doing our jobs well is about achievement and accomplishment -- we have what psychologists call a "promotion focus." In the language of economics, promotion focus is about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities.

For others, doing our jobs well is about security, about not losing the positions we've worked so hard for. This "prevention focus" places the emphasis on avoiding danger, fulfilling responsibilities and doing what you feel you ought to do. In economic terms, it's about minimizing losses, trying to hang on to what you've got.

Promotion and prevention-focused people work differently to reach the same goal. They use different strategies, have different strengths and are prone to different kinds of mistakes. One group will be motivated by applause, the other by criticism. One group may give up too soon -- the other may not know when to quit.

So, do you spend your life pursuing accomplishments and accolades, reaching for the stars? Or are you busy fulfilling your duties and responsibilities -- being the person everyone can count on? Start by identifying your focus, and then use the information below to better understand and embrace your strengths, your potential weaknesses and the strategies that will work best for you.

What Motivates You: Criticism or Praise?

When you are promotion-focused, your motivation feels like eagerness -- an enthusiastic desire to really go for it. Eagerness is enhanced by positive feedback -- the more you are succeeding, the more motivated you become. Confidence heightens your energy and intensity. Doubting yourself takes the wind right out of your sails.

When you are prevention-focused, your motivation feels like vigilance -- you are on the lookout for danger. Vigilance actually increases in response to negative feedback or self-doubt. There's nothing like the looming possibility of failure to get your prevention juices flowing. Over-confidence or effusive praise, however, may lead you to let down your guard and undermine your motivation.

Do You Embrace Risk, or Avoid it?

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained" pretty much captures the promotion-focused philosophy. The promotion-minded have a habit of saying, "Yes" to every opportunity, having what psychologists call a "risky bias." Prevention-minded people, on the other hand, are cautious. They tend to say, "No" more, and have a more "conservative bias."

These biases manifest themselves in all sorts of ways. For example, people with prevention goals are reluctant to disengage from one activity to try another, preferring the devil they know to the one they don't. But their conservative nature also makes them less likely than their risk-loving colleagues to procrastinate, for fear that they won't have time to get the job done.

Is Your Thinking Abstract or Concrete?

When people have promotion goals, they feel free to be more exploratory and abstract in their thinking. They brainstorm. They generate lots of options and possibilities to reach their ideals and are more creative. They are also particularly good at picking up on connecting themes or synthesizing information.

In pursuit of prevention goals, abstraction and creativity seem reckless and time-consuming. Prevention-focused thinking is concrete and specific -- you pick a plan and stick to it. The prevention-minded are great with details and have better memory for what they've seen and what still needs to be done.

Speed or Accuracy?

Executing any modestly complicated task involves what psychologists call a "speed-accuracy tradeoff." The faster you go, the more mistakes you make. But going slow has costs too -- particularly if time is valuable and you are in a hurry to get the job done. It won't surprise you to learn that promotion and prevention-minded people end up on opposite sides of this particular trade off, with promotion favoring speed and prevention preferring the slow-but-flawless route.

Are You Better at Getting There or Staying There?

Promotion-focused thinking leads to energetic and enthusiastic motivation in the shorter term but can be less effective when it comes to long-term maintenance. Prevention-focused thinking, on the other hand, is ideal for making sure your hard-earned gains don't slip away.

Do You Get What You Want?

When it comes to negotiating, having a promotion focus will give you the clear upper-hand. Studies show that promotion-minded negotiators stay focused on their (ideal) price or pay targets, while the prevention-minded worry too much about a negotiation failure or impasse, leaving them more susceptible to less advantageous agreements. When it comes to getting what you want, it pays to focus on what you have to gain, rather than on what you might lose.

Armed with an understanding of promotion and prevention, so much of what we do (and what our coworkers do) makes a lot more sense. Perhaps now you see why you've always been a risk-taker, or why you've always avoided risks like the plague. It's clear why you are uncomfortable with being too optimistic, or why you are known for your sunny outlook. You get why some things have always been hard for you, while others came easily.

There's no need to fight it -- embrace your promotion- or prevention-mindedness! After all, both kinds of motivation can bring you success, and each brings something of value (e.g., innovation, attention to detail) to you and your organization. Just remember to take with a grain of salt the well-meaning advice and input from others when it doesn't feel right for you, focus on the strategies that play to your own strengths and see the value in what your differently-motivated colleagues are bringing to the table.

For more on promotion and prevention and choosing strategies that play to your strengths, check out my book "Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals." Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson.