A group of volunteers were tested on an anagram task. They were either told that finding 90 percent or more of the words would earn them a one dollar prize or that missing 10 percent or fewer words would prevent a one dollar penalty. Both of these amount to very near the same thing and yet some of the volunteers performed better with the first instruction, while others did better with the second. Why?
It appears that most of us tend towards one of two attitudes in a given situation. We either play to win, or we play to not lose. Some of us have a tendency for one attitude over the other, but others flit between the two, depending on the situation.
In a 'promotion focus' we're not even thinking of losing, we are aiming for the win. In a 'prevention focus' we're not ambitious enough to want to win, we just don't want to lose. A promotion focus is unbridled and unafraid to think outside the box. It ventures into unchartered territory. A prevention focus is cautious and risk-averse.
Workplace tasks can often be placed under these two categories. For instance, if you must wade through a long database checking for accuracy, you are seeking to miminise errors, so this is a prevention task. Another project may need you to come up with a new strategy to boost sales, a ‘promotion’ task.
Fitting your regulatory focus to your task will get you the best results.
You will be most productive when you do an prevention task with a prevention focus and a promotion task with a promotion focus. If you alternate between the two and have a long list of tasks to complete, you could tackle the tasks that best fit your focus at each time. If you are in charge of a team and must delegate tasks, you could delegate creative and promotion tasks to team members with a promotion focus. Tasks which require care and attention to detail, in order to minimise errors, could be delegated to new employees who are more likely to spend the first few weeks at their new job trying to avoid mistakes.
Too much unbridled creativity and adventure increases risk exposure and a prevention focus can provide an effective counter-balance to an ambitious promotion focus. On the other hand, peppering a prevention focus with a little less caution can open the doors to creativity and novelty. An ideal team is flavoured with both types of focus, with one providing the yin to the other's yang, whenever necessary, to improve performance and intensify productivity.