Episode 59 - Approach or Avoidance - It Comes Down to Your Personality
A big part of our role as leaders is setting the emotional tone and culture for our teams. Whether consciously or not, we communicate our own bias towards the upside potential and action, or the bias towards risk and fear. This week we’re looking at approach and avoidance motivation, and what we can do to foster a more positive mindset for ourselves and others.
Hey there. Welcome to episode 59 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we’re looking at approach and avoidance motivation, and what we can do to foster a more positive mindset for ourselves and others.
Motivation can be divided into two main categories - avoidance and approach. This isn’t a new idea. In fact, Greek philosophers spoke about these two forms of motivation as far back as 400 BC. But research has demonstrated that our preference for one type of motivation over another may come down to our personality.
Avoidance motivation, as the name suggests, is about trying to avoid a negative outcome. Avoidance goals relating to health might include not eating unhealthy food or giving up smoking. These avoidance actions may indeed make me less unhealthy, but they probably won’t make me healthy. As numerous people have expressed it, the absence of disease is not health.
In contrast, approach motivation is about pursuing something positive - working towards a positive outcome or possibility. Approach goals relating to health could include adding healthy foods to our diet or undertaking regular exercise. These goals don’t just move us away from being unhealthy, but actively increase our health.
The primary function of our brain is to keep us alive - to survive. That makes avoidance motivation pretty attractive as a default position for most people. It aligns with the base level need to avoid things that have potentially negative consequences for our survival. But our brains are also about reward. We seek out opportunities to experience pleasure and positive outcomes.
Researchers have found that the balance between avoidance and approach motivation can be linked to our personality - that some people have an approach temperament while others have an avoidance temperament - that we either lean towards self-protection or towards self-enhancement. Those with an approach temperament tend to be more extraverted, have positive emotionality, and a bias towards action. In contrast, those with an avoidance temperament tend to be less emotionally stable, experience negative emotionality, and have a bias towards restraint (or not acting).
This bias flows through to the types of goals we set. Those with an approach temperament tend to set mastery goals. For example, “I want to master the material in this class”. A mastery goal is about me - I’m the benchmark of success and progress. In contrast, those with an avoidance temperament tend to set goals related to others. For example, “I just want to avoid doing badly in this class” or “I just want to do as well as most people”.
A big part of our role as leaders is setting the emotional tone and culture for our teams. Whether consciously or not, we communicate our own bias towards the upside potential and action, or the bias towards risk and fear. Like almost every aspect of leadership, it starts with the way we think, feel and act. And we can always change the way we think, feel and act, even if it takes some effort.
Here are four ideas to move you towards an approach temperament:
1. Connect with people. Meeting our basic human need for connection to others helps to build a more positive mindset.
2. Note down experiences that provide you with positive emotions and build these experiences into your routine. Going for a run each morning makes me feel positive, so I’ve built that into my daily routine.
3. Anthropomorphise negative emotions. What the heck is this one about. You might be familiar with the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out. In the movie the various emotions the young girl experienced were represented by characters inside her head. Researchers have found there may be some benefits to thinking about negative emotions in this way. For example, they found conceptualising sadness as a person, for example as a girl walking slowly with her head down, helped people to feel more detached from their sadness and actually made them feel less sad. It sounds bizarre, but give it a go. I now have Barry, who is my go to character when I’m feeling discouraged. Importantly, you want to only use this approach with negative emotions. The researchers found that thinking of happiness as a person also made people feel less happy.
4. Run your own race and stop comparing. Aim to become better at things that matter to you and track your progress against yourself, instead of comparing your capability to others.
This week I encourage you to focus on approach goals and building a positive bias for action in your team. As always, if you’re interested in the research check out the show notes at the leadership.today website. I look forward to speaking with you again next week.
Andrew J. Elliot and Todd M. Thrash. Approach–Avoidance Motivation in Personality: Approach and Avoidance Temperaments and Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 82, No. 5, 804–818
Fangyuan Chen, Rocky Peng Chen, Li Yang. When Sadness Comes Alive, Will It Be Less Painful? The Effects of Anthropomorphic Thinking on Sadness Regulation and Consumption. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2019;