Towards or away from?

push pull by Robert S. Donovan

Sometimes you don't know if you're coming or going

Think about a recent job change that you made by your own initiative (rather than by force of circumstance, such as redundancy).

Why did you change? Had you got so fed up with your previous job that you had to move to preserve your sanity? Or were you tempted away by the opportunities on offer in the new job?

What about changing your mobile phone company, utilities, mortgage deal or internet service provider? Do you switch when you get fed up or do you constantly look for better deals?

What motivates you at work and why is it important to you? When you’re thinking about a job move, do you make a list of what you want or a list of what you don’t want?

When you make a list of pros and cons, which column tends to be most influential in making your mind up about something?

This issue of whether you are moving towards something or moving away from something has been a recurring theme in things I have been reading and in discussions I have been having over the last couple of weeks.

Approach or avoid

Regulatory focus theory (Higgins, 1997) states that people  regulate their behaviours using different types of motivations:

  • Approach motivation or promotion focus — concerned with advancement, growth, and accomplishment, and nurturing objectives related to goals, hopes, ideals and aspirations. When you are driven by an approach motivation you tend to see opportunities and may be willing to take risks in order to develop.
  • Avoidance motivation or prevention focus — concerned with security, safety, and responsibility, and securing objectives related to duties, obligations, and necessities. When you are driven by an avoidance motivation you tend to see problems and will seek ways to avoid failure.

Most of us will combine both promotion and prevention focus when we are making decisions, and which type of motivation is most influential may depend on the particular situation. For some situations, such as walking through riot-affected neighbourhoods at night, a mainly avoidance motivation is entirely appropriate. For others, such as deciding that you really like the look of the flat-screen TV in that shop window over there, approach motivations may hold sway.

However, we may also have a predictable pattern of emphasising one over the other, which could be linked to our personalities or early life experiences.

A recent meta-analysis by Gorman et al. (2011) looked at a number of previous studies to see how promotion and prevention focus were related to various work-related factors.

Fairly unsurprisingly, approach motivation was positively linked to job satisfaction whereas avoidance motivation was negatively linked. So, people who approach their jobs motivated by what they can achieve, by potential benefits or by personal development tend to be more satisfied than people who are motivated by security, by avoiding problems or by trying to limit the possibility of failure.

Crystallisation of desire or discontent

Research by Jack Bauer and colleagues (2005, presumably conducted and written up in 24 hours) got people to tell stories of life changing decisions they had made. The researchers found that people who tended to talk about changing based primarily on realising they wanted something positive in the future (crystallisation of desire — an approach behaviour) reported greater sense of life satisfaction than those who chose to change primarily because they wanted to escape a past or current situation in which the negatives outweighed the positives (crystallisation of discontent — an avoidance motivation).

The authors of the paper are proponents of positive psychology, so the results are not unexpected. They admit that most of the narratives contained a mixture of desire and discontent crystallisation, but they were trying to classify the story-tellers’ most influential motivation.

An overdose of sticks and carrots

This issue of positive and negative motivation came up in a recent session I was running with some employees who were being made redundant. When I got them to do an exercise about what was driving their career movement, one participant realised that the uncertainty of the organisational restructuring had pushed her into focusing on security as the overwhelming consideration when she was thinking about her next job. She was haunted by the idea of failing to pay her mortgage and fulfilling other responsibilities. This was in complete contrast to what had driven her career choices in the rest of her career — the desire for growth and exploration. She realised that, if she just followed an avoidance motivation, she was in danger of making impulsive decisions that could lead her to a downward spiral of dissatisfaction. In the end, she was prepared to evaluate her options taking into account both her need for security and her need for growth.

A similar issue comes up in my work with junior doctors. Many doctors talk about work-life balance as being a primary factor in their decision of what specialty to pursue. Quite often this motivation arises when they first encounter the stressed and overworked house officers in hospitals and get a glimpse of what the future has in store for them. In essence, this is an avoidance motivation; they don’t want to have the kind of lifestyles they have observed in their more senior counterparts.

It’s not just avoidance motivations that can lead to decision making difficulties. Sometimes an all-consuming approach motivation can be a problem. I have come across quite a few graduates who got themselves stuck in careers they didn’t enjoy because they were steadfastly pursuing a desire to use their degree subject to the exclusion of any other consideration. Of course, that could be an avoidance motivation in disguise. Maybe, they wanted to avoid having to think about more complex factors in their career decision making because it was too unsettling.

The axis of desire

Another article I read recently (Vilhjálmsdóttir & Tulinius, 2009) talked about a framework for analysing narratives based on the work of a Lithuanian linguist called Algirdas Julien Greimas. The framework defines a set of universal narrative “actants” (character roles, which do not necessarily have to be played by people) and their corresponding relationships. Any character in a narrative may take on more than one role and may move between roles at different stages of the story.

  • Subject–Object. The Subject is the main actor in the narrative. He or she attempts to join with (or separate from) the Object, which could be a person, a thing or even an abstract concept, such as happiness or discomfort. The relationship represents an axis of desire, either positive or negative. This seems to me to be a fairly good parallel for the approach and avoidance motivations.
  • Helper–Opponent. These are people, objects or attitudes that act as facilitators or barriers between the Subject and the Object. They, therefore, represent an axis of power, because they either empower the Subject or disempower them. A Subject’s own strengths and weaknesses may play the role of Helper and Opponent in some narratives.
  • Sender–Receiver. The Sender initiates the Subject on their quest. The Receiver is the one who benefits (or suffers) from the result of the quest. They relate on the axis of knowledge or transmission. This is an interesting relationship because it reminds you to think about where the motivation comes from. Is the Subject their own Sender or has someone else set them on a quest? Are we just thinking about the Subject as the Receiver or beneficiary, or could we include a wider definition, such as society as a whole?

The article analysed four stories of counselling encounters. They looked at the stories by placing both the client and the counsellor as the Subject.

Next time you are reflecting on your interaction with a client it might be good to ask yourself the following questions.

  • What was the client trying to gain or move towards?
  • What were they trying to avoid or move away from?
  • What were you trying to gain or move towards?
  • What were you trying to avoid or move away from?

Further reading

  • Gorman, C., Meriac, J., Overstreet, B., Apodaca, S., McIntyre, A., Park, P. & Godbey, J. (2011, in press). A meta-analysis of the regulatory focus nomological network: Work-related antecedents and consequences. Journal of Vocational Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2011.07.005
  • Higgins, E.T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. The American psychologist, 52(12), 1280-1300. PMID: 9414606
  • Bauer, J., McAdams, D. & Sakaeda, A. (2005). Crystallization of desire and crystallization of discontent in narratives of life-changing decisions. Journal of Personality, 73(5), 1181-1214. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00346.x
  • Vilhjálmsdóttir, G. & Tulinius, T. (2009). Tales of two subjects: Narratives of career counseling. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 75(3), 267-274. DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2009.06.008

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  1. #1 by Vinny on 11 August 2011 - 11:39

    Avoidance and Approach motivations are two sides of the same coin.
    I have found that many people find looking at the negatives easier than positives. They find it hard to put their finger on what they really want from a job (approach motivation) and seem to have a much clearer idea about what they don’t want (avoidance motivation).

    I have often taken the approach of going through their avoidance motivations (which they find easier) and then helping the client to turn them round to be approach motivations (which is more positive).
    For example a statement saying “I hate to be bored and doing the same thing all the time” can be turned into something like “I am looking for a job with variety.”

    I think I disagree when you say that your junior doctors wish to have a better work life balance is “in essence…avoidance motivation.” The fact they have phrased it in a positive way indicates that for many it is now an approach motivation.
    One way to check this would be to ask them what they mean by a good work life balance. If they describe it in a positive way i.e. “I’d like to work mainly 9-5 and have the flexibility to take time out to have children” this would be approach motivation.
    If instead they said “I just don’t want to be stressed like I was last year.” then this would be avoidance.

    The more specific you can get your client to be about their motivations the more you can help turn each one into a more positive step towards a more satisfying career, rather than a step – in any random direction – away from a bad career.

    • #2 by David Winter on 11 August 2011 - 16:59

      You’re right – they can be two sides of the same coin, but people don’t always look on the other side without help.

      I’m also happy to start with avoidance motivations if that’s what the client finds easiest and then try to convert those into approach motivations.

      However, that might not be enough. Avoidance motivations are linked to the past/present rather than the future. Even if you convert them to approach motivations, that link to the past pain is still there. Genuine approach motivations are grounded in the future self and future circumstances, not the past self or past circumstances.

      I’ve had quite a few clients who have tried to overcompensate for a past deficit or discontent in their work. So, they don’t just start moving away in a random direction, they move away in a direction which is diametrically opposite, even if a less dramatic sideways move might have been more appropriate. Their focus on what was lacking in the past excludes or overshadows other considerations and can often lead them to make an impulsive or reactive change, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In that situation, I’m tempted to set them a quest to look at a range of options and try to identify things that appeal to them which don’t seem to relate to past pains.

      I concede that not all of them want work-life balance mainly from avoidance motivations. Actually the way they phrase initially it doesn’t always reveal the truth straight away. An avoidance motivation can masquerade as an approach motivation. As you say, investigating a bit further it is probably necessary. In NLP there is the Toward-Away from meta-programme (which is basically approach-avoidance). The questions suggested to explore this are “Why is having X important to you?” or “What will having X do for you?”

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