The towards/away-from filter determines what needs to be in place for us to be motivated.
We are all motivated in different ways. Many of us tend to move towards identified goals or directions, while many others tend to have their goals defined by what they don’t want – called away-from motivation.
We have the two different types of goals hard-wired into our psyche – we all have the capacity to:
- Avoid pain: the basic instinct to move away from anything hurtful, and to survive.
- Seek pleasure: the innate drive towards comfort, sex, excitement, and anything else that is pleasurable to us.
These motivation directions, when they operate as filters or preferences, have different characteristics – some of which are more effective in some situations and less effective in others. Noticing what motivation filter we tend to select unconsciously, and choosing how to amplify or modify it, can hugely expand our ability to achieve our ability to achieve our ambitions – whether these are towards aspirations or away-from problems.
Most management literature, when dealing with goals, tends to assume the universality and desirability of towards goals. Towards goals are certainly useful when we want to create something, usually over a period of time, and usually provide an efficient use of resources when compared to away-from goals. When we identify with a well-defined positively-stated goal, moving towards it can be straightforward because it is fairly easy to work out what actions will help us to achieve the goal, and what will not. Expressing a goal in terms of where/what we want to get to is a key element of good goal-setting, because by doing so we can channel all our energies into one place.
However, the number of potential barriers or obstacles between where we are and where we want to be might feel intimidating. We can mitigate this effect by mentally stepping into the desired outcome and then looking back from a position of having achieved it: this will enable an effective pathway to be identified as there is already a presupposition of success.
Towards goals can provide motivation over a long period of time (until the goal is achieved). Depending on the type of goal they are also relatively easy to extend. Once we have achieved a level of well-being or riches it’s fairly easy to set another, higher, level as a new goal and re-fire our motivation.
By contrast, away-from goals are most often expressed as things we want to avoid: when our house is burning down, or our business is failing, we need to get somewhere else – anywhere else – as fast as possible. Away-from goals can be likened to the fight or flight response to a crisis and enable us to move rapidly to safety. Away-from motivation can also arise if there is an expectation of something even worse coming along in the future. Formal recognition of the need for away-from goals has recently started to emerge in business circles with the growth of regulations and the concept of risk management.
Specific away-from goals tend to be self-limiting: once the emergency is over or the stress arising from a particular problem begins to ease, there is no motivation to go any further. We’re either inside the burning building or we are not. We either comply with the law or we don’t. We might save a specific sale from being lost, yet may fail to apply any insights to other customers who are exposed to a similar set of issues. Many of us are quite content with realising these goals in broad aspects of our lives.
Although both motivation directions have huge benefits in certain contexts, they also have huge disadvantages in different contexts. Some of the potential downsides of strong towards motivation are:
- the blind pursuit of a long-term goal (for example, riches, power and fame) without considering some of the negative side-effects that their pursuit might bring (e.g. overwork, loss of relationships, loss of privacy, the metaphorical trail of bodies in their wake);
- similarly, pursuing short-term pleasure goals (for example, intoxication, sex, gambling) that may have longer-term negative impact;
- keeping us mentally trapped in a dream-world future at the expense of dealing with the realities of today (which, ironically, are the stepping-stones towards achieving our towards goals);
- once a big towards goal is achieved, motivation which has been present for a long time can evaporate instantly – in extreme cases generating a psychological crisis.
Some of the downsides of strong away-from motivation are:
- because any action will do to get away from the current state, it is possible to waste energy in choosing between them, or taking actions that cancel each other out to an extent;
- it’s quite easy to jump from one crisis (the frying pan) into another (the fire);
- a short burst of high emotional intensity stimulates the emergency action – and it’s difficult to maintain this emotional intensity for a sustained period of time (especially once the immediacy of the undesired state has gone).
Like most human attributes we tend to have a subconscious preference for one motivation direction but can exhibit its opposite from time to time, depending on the context.
In a business, both motivation directions are essential:
|Finance||Maximise revenue||Minimise expenditure|
|Risk||Accept risk in pursuing and seek to manage it actively||Avoid risks with high probability and impact of failure|
|Customers||Delight them, and seek to learn from them||Don’t annoy them|
|Strategy||Engage the whole firm in moving towards a clear strategy||Identify problems in the business and ensure the strategy deals with them|
Almost every aspect of running a business benefits from deploying both towards and away-from motivation:
- The owner of a small business who is concerned about whether the business will survive may well have sleepless nights worrying about expenditure, but would also do well to put towards actions in place to generate adequate revenue.
- Executives, particularly CEOs, who have strong towards filter do best when they appoint a strong away-from executive (often the Finance Director) who has sufficient personal power to provide a productive balance.
- Many successful executives have an away-from fear of failure as their primary filter, but consistently manage to create towards goals that satisfy it.
- Acquisitions are driven primarily by massive towards motivations on the part of the acquiring party, and frequently fail because away-from issues are ignored. Successful acquisitions will tend to be the ones where a great deal of attention is also paid to away-from issues in terms of choice of target, issues raised during the negotiation process, and ensuring that post-deal synergies are not lost.