Are you running to or running from?

Understanding how you tend to motivate yourself and others is a key task of effective leaders. Knowing that there is a difference in the directional nature of motivation is helpful in enabling you to tap into the motivational drive of members of your team. Understanding it can help raise team performance significantly. In this post we will explore motivational direction: yours and those you lead. 

From ancient Greek philosophers such as Democritus and Epicurus, to more modern psychologists such as James and Freud, the theme of motivational direction has been explored in order to understand why we achieve somethings and fail to achieve others. Why do some of us master goals with apparent ease in one area of our life and not so effectively in other areas? Why do some people find it difficult to motivate themselves for goals that are seemingly important, even for protection of their very life, for example, when it comes to consistently adhering to medical regimes or diets? Some of the answers to these important questions lay in understanding that we have a binary motivational aspect to our levels of drive.


We can be motivated towards something (approach) or away from something (avoidance). We can be energised to go after something or move away from it (Elliot, 2006). Take the following as a simple example: you have a goal that you want to lose 10lbs in weight. In simple terms, you can view that goal from two different directions. You can want to work towards being 10lbs lighter, in order to become healthier, be able to wear your clothes more comfortably or regain a bit of self-confidence. OR, you can be motivated to lose the weight to avoid the sarcastic comments your partner keeps passing about your expanding waistline, to ease the discomfort that your trousers give you after a meal or to stop the pain you get in your chest when you play in the park with your young children. You can be motivated to approach a goal or to avoid the consequences of a current state. The result is the same: you lose 10lbs. 

Understanding the underlying motivational direction is helpful in order to maximise the leverage you can get from the motivation. Some people will be driven to lose weight because they really want to become the vision they can paint for themselves of their future state. Some people will be driven to lose the weight because they want to avoid feeling like they do, any longer than possible. Both groups of people will be motivated to achieve but for quite different reasons. 

What does motivational direction mean for you as a leader? 

Most importantly it is critical for you to begin to recognise how you tend to get most driven and motivated. Are you typically driven towards a goal or more generally, are you moved to avoid a current situation? It is important to realise that you are likely to find that you respond differently in different situations. You may be approach-motivated in some contexts and avoidance-motivated in others. Recognising patterns in your own behaviour is a good starting point. In my case, I know that I am quite effective at working towards physical goals e.g. training X times a week. I tend to be avoidance-motivated when it comes to all things finance-related e.g. I want to avoid trouble with the tax authorities so pay taxes etc on time. Importantly, I also understand why I tend to be motivated in these directions: fulfilling a long-standing myth of being sporty for the former and being respectful of authority for the latter. And it is this deeper level of self-awareness that will be really helpful for you to understand why you are motivated in certain ways. 

The other area where you can get a real advantage as a leader is understanding the motivational directions of those that you lead. This will be very individual for each member of your team. Whilst you could ask people outright about their motivation, it is something many people would not even be aware of, so you can find other ways of discovering it for yourself: 

  1. Listen to language people use: words and phrases ‘suggest’ a direction, e.g. “Let’s go for it” vs “We need to get this done otherwise …(consequence)” 
  2. When people are approach-motivated in a certain situation, they can easily paint a vision of success. If someone is avoidance-motivated they will find this future-oriented work more of a challenge or may not engage in the vision, if one is created. 
  3. The need for affiliation i.e. wanting to be part of your team is an approach-motivation. However, wanting to be part of your team in order not to not part of your team is an avoidance-motivation around the fear of rejection. 

Motivational direction is not the whole story in relation to goal achievement and human drive but it is an important and powerful area for you as a leader to understand. Understanding motivation can first and foremost help you to be more successful and importantly, it will help you to access greater motivation from your team. 

Performance Edge develops great leaders by helping them understand themselves and those they lead. If you would like us to help you develop your leadership bench strength then please contact us here

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Are you running to or running from?
Posted On
Jun 29, 2016
Posted In
Impactful leadership development  Engaging people 

John Lewis
Little Hearts Matter