Do You Know What Really Motivates You?

Flea trainers train fleas by placing them in a box with a top on it. During this period of training, the fleas will jump up and hit the top of the lid over and over again. As the fleas continue to jump, something interesting begins to occur. The fleas continue to jump, however, they are no longer jumping high enough to hit the lid of the box.

Eventually, the trainer removes the lid of the box and no longer has to worry about the fleas jumping from the box because the fleas have now been conditioned to only jump so high without a consequence.

Think about how conditions in life do the same to us. We begin in situations very vibrant and after being hit on the head and told, “No, you can’t do that” or “That can’t be done” over and over again, our zeal for changing the status quo is reduced. When we remain in situations like this over an extended period of time, we can find ourselves confused about the true spark that gets us motivated to jump out of the box of status quo performance.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Halvorson and Higgins asked, “Are you motivated by playing to win or not to lose?” 

The motivation for each is different. Knowing your motivation will be critical in helping you jump out of the box and complete the task of performing well in life. An awareness of your motivational fit will lead you to situations/jobs/tasks that will garner greater success for you.

People who are motivated by winning are referred to as Promotion-Focused individuals. Common behaviors of these individuals tend to be that they work quickly, are open to new opportunities, optimistic, plan only best case scenarios, brainstorm prolific ideas and seek positive feedback in order to gain momentum.

People who are motivated by not losing are referred to as Prevention-Focused individuals. Common behaviors of these individuals tend to be that they work slower and deliberately, tend to be accurate, are prepared for the worst, are stressed by short deadlines, stick to tried-and-true ways of doing things and are uncomfortable with praise.

Once you have identified your motivational focus, you may use this to seek out mentors and to help set your goals. Promotion-focused individuals tend to become more engaged with leadership and/or mentors who are inspirational in their leadership style. Promotion-focused individuals thrive under leadership that is transformational, creative, visionary, and solution centered.

Prevention-focused individuals tend to be more engaged by leadership and/or mentors who have a strong emphasis on caution and avoiding making mistakes. Prevention-focused individuals are at their best under leadership that emphasizes rules and standards. Each of us will tend to be drawn to the leadership style that resonates with us.

In a study where the instructor asked students to write a report providing instruction in the motivational focus of the students (HBR,2013), there was a 50% higher chance of the report being turned in. The promotion-focused instructions were given this scenario.Imagine a convenient time when you will be able to write your report and imagine a comfortable, quiet place where you might write your report. The prevention-focused instructions were given this scenario. Imagine times that will be inconvenient for writing your report so you can avoid them and imagine places that will be uncomfortable or have lots of distractions so that you can avoid writing your report.

Now that you know your motivational style and you are ready to set goals to get out of the box, it will be important to use language to help you frame your goals. Promotion-focused individuals often focus on their goals in terms of positives: aspiring to reach a goal or how to best accomplish a goal. Prevention-focused individuals often focus on their goals in terms of negatives: obstacles to avoid, potential mistakes.

Knowing whether or not you are driven by fear or success will make a tremendous difference in your ability to motivate yourself beyond the box or to be the best that you can be in the safe box. What’s your motivational focus?


Halvorson, H. G. & Higgins, E. T. (2013). Do you play to win, or not to lose? Harvard Business Review, p. 117-120.

Be Inspired,

Dr. InspirationT-A-Watson

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